Corporate America deploys new CR forces worldwide.
By Deirdre White
An increasing number of large U.S.-based corporations—such as IBM, Dow Corning, and PepsiCo—are sending employees overseas on pro bono consulting assignments that use their professional talent. It’s an idea with appeal, as these short-term volunteer projects are becoming integral to many corporate responsibility strategies. Increasingly, these projects are becoming a key component of companies’ business strategies as well.
As a type of Corporate Peace Corps, employee volunteers from around the world team up for three to four weeks and work alongside local non-governmental organizations, social enterprises, and educational institutions. Their assignments are typically designed to build their hosts’ capability to impact economic and social development. According to a recent CDC Development Solutions study, companies are now sending seven times as many employees abroad as they were just five years ago. As business strategy meets local economic development in this relatively new arena of corporate responsibility, companies often need guidelines to steer their program design and decision-making process. Below are examples of successful international corporate volunteer programs and how companies are benefitting, both in the short term and the long term.
Last year, Dow Corning sent a team of 10 to Bangalore, India with three primary objectives: develop new insights for product and market innovation, validate a market at the base of the economic pyramid, and serve companies and people in this emerging market. These 10 employees were divided into three sub-teams, each assigned to work with organizations on issues that addressed sustainable housing for low income residents and the development of clean cookstoves for home and commercial use.
Considered one of the developing world’s top five health threats (see “The Great Convener,” page 23), traditional cookstoves are the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly 3 billion people. These stoves often burn inefficiently—resulting in toxic emissions with enormous health and environmental repercussions. It is also the cause of nearly two million deaths annually. The Dow Corning teams gained firsthand exposure to the realities of this issue as they worked with local clean cookstove suppliers Envirofit and Sustaintech. While one team worked with Envirofit to strengthen
its marketing and sales strategy, the other made improvements to Sustaintech’s manufacturing process.
As a result of their experience in India, Dow Corning gained strategic insight that translated into approximately 40 ideas—15 of which are currently being explored for market. Conversely, the local host organizations gained professional knowledge that will extend well beyond this one-month project. The trip also evolved into a stunning example of shared value. Dow Corning recently committed five million dollars, along with technical, human, and financial resources to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (led by the United Nations Foundations in association with the U.S. Department of State).
This public-private sector initiative is designed to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for cleaner cookstoves, a market Dow Corning will come to understand well.
IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) is by far the largest international corporate volunteer program to date. In the past three and a half years, 1,200 employees have participated in this program. Through the CSC, several teams of IBM employees traveled to Cross River State, Nigeria, to develop solutions to address a range of challenges alongside the state government, including the persistent issue of infant mortality. In Cross River State, one out of every four children does not reach the age of five. To address the issue, the state had launched Projects Hope and Comfort as a way to provide free healthcare and education to those in need. CSC teams recommended that the state use more effective databases to better monitor patient’s health and administer a social safety net. The teams also recommended a communications strategy to foster trust among a population unaccustomed to government support of this kind.
Although IBM’s presence in Cross River was in a corporate citizenship capacity only, the state eventually asked IBM to take on Projects Hope and Comfort as a commercial endeavor. IBM now provides support in maintaining the technology necessary for the database to ensure it works effectively. The programs use sophisticated biometric devices to verify patient identity. After confirming participant identity quickly
and accurately, doctors can make faster and better decisions based on electronic medical records that the system automatically provides.
When PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi was presented the idea of PepsiCorps, she was immediately enthusiastic and told her team to make it happen. Eight PepsiCo employees just returned from the company’s first trip into rural Ghana. They focused on two main projects. One delivered management training to local leaders to provide clean water to the community. Another initiative was a tourism strategy that would attract visitors to the area’s magnificent beachfront as well as create jobs locally. PepsiCorps also worked on a service project, teaching children hygiene practices from their home countries.
A primary aim of the PepsiCorps is to develop future leaders who are empathetic to the challenges facing the communities in which PepsiCo operates. At the same time, each project ties into an important piece of PepsiCo’s corporate responsibility platform, Performance with Purpose, which focuses on human, talent, and environmental sustainability.
In addition to these short examples, companies including Pfizer, Deloitte, Accenture, and several others are sending employees abroad. Why are such an increasing number of companies moving in this direction? In a period when globalization outpaces development, international corporate volunteerism offers a direct entryway into new markets, equipping companies with both the insight to realize shared value and a consciousness of their footprint abroad.
Deirdre White is president and CEO at CDC Development Solutions (CDS), a nonprofit organization that facilitates International Corporate Volunteer programs. Learn more at www.cdcdevelopmentsolutions.org.