Global Volunteerism Is Good For Business

The benefits of sending your employees to Kenya for a month

Nairobi_cityscape banner.jpg
Downtown Nairobi, Kenya. (Wikimedia Commons)

Beju Ekperigin, a New York-based IBM management strategist, found herself in Kenya in June. She wasn't there on a commercial client project: Beju and nine other coworkers from six countries traveled halfway across the world on IBM's dime to consult for the government of Kenya.

In a month, the team formulated a plan for promoting and administering cervical cancer screening, and improving electrical power access. "There's a lot of potential" in Kenya, Beju told me as they submitted their detailed recommendations.

Beju and 2,000 other IBM employees who have gone on similar assignments, were in good company. Over the last few years, other companies have looked to IBM for advice on international corporate volunteerism.

Dow Corning sent employees to India to provide advice on more efficient agricultural machines, appliances for safe food preparation, and sustainable energy. Pepsi experts have visited Ghana to engineer systems for clean water and sanitation. FedEx employees helped youth in northeast Brazil study for college-entrance tests, get scholarships, and learn English. Novartis has dispatched a team to provide advice to local drug dispensaries in Tanzania.

Disruption of the Developing World The biggest forces driving social change today. A debate

Why are these companies spending on something which seemingly has no obvious commercial value?

Recommended Reading

It's simple. Besides providing valuable assistance to the developing world, employees are sharpening their technical, cultural, teamwork, and leadership skills, becoming more loyal toward their employers, and developing insights into potential new markets. By completing critical projects on the ground, companies help develop the economic capacity and the social stability of areas in which they'd one day like to conduct business. It's a way for businesses to help others while helping themselves.

IBM is privileged to count itself as one of the first and, by large measure, the biggest player in this field. IBM's Corporate Service Corps sends its top talent to cities and rural areas alike, providing pro bono counsel to solve problems that intersect business, technology, and society.

Since 2008, over 2,000 IBM top talent from 50 countries have been dispatched on more than 200 team assignments in 30 countries. IBM also created such a program tailored to cities within the industrialized and developing world. Called the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, this competitive grants program alone is providing pro bono consulting services worth $50 million to 100 cities through 2013.

Volunteerism is nothing new, of course. In 1961, Americans were challenged to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country. President Kennedy asked them to join The Peace Corps, a volunteer program that sends U.S. citizens abroad to promote cultural understanding and economic development. It has always enjoyed bi-partisan support, sending 200,000 Americans to 139 countries over the decades.

Over the next 10 years, international volunteerism could prove even more transformative, particularly now that businesses are increasingly participating in this movement. In 2006, only six of approximately two-dozen U.S. companies surveyed by CDC Development Solutions sent 280 employees on pro bono service assignments to assist local governments in four countries.

However, by 2012, all 22 companies surveyed planned to send 2,183 employees on such assignments to dozens of countries. In fact, since 2006, corporate volunteers from those companies had volunteered in 62 countries -- mostly in the developing world. This is exciting because there are fewer forces more powerful than public-private partnerships. We need each other.

With the involvement of businesses, the style, pace, and objectives of international community service can grow exponentially. It can broaden the traditional definition of "service" to include white collar and high technology skills. The dramatic growth of cities, the middle class, and data worldwide play to the strengths of companies, which tend to offer their most valuable cerebral expertise, rather than agricultural aid.

Governments, civil society, and entrepreneurs are eager to learn how they might provide more efficient and innovative services, and citizens want better education, skills, training, and jobs. These are all areas where business acumen can help. At the same time, companies are interested in promoting cultural awareness because they are often global citizens, too.

IBM's Corporate Service Corps and Smarter Cities Challenge have begun making their mark. For instance, the company helped Tanzania develop an eco-tourism program, For Accra, Ghana, IBM developed a plan for efficient and transparent revenue management, and proposed a nationwide framework for timely healthcare. In Nairobi, Kenya, the company devised a transportation plan. These are all large-scale challenges, where significantly skilled teams made a real difference.

The public and private sectors are working together for wider participation. IBM founded, along with USAID and CDC Development Solutions, a Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism.

With resources and partnerships like this, which are likely to burgeon, the business community is now in a better position over the next 10 years to help build a "smarter planet." This is a world in which citizens and governments in the developing world have the skills, self-sufficiency, and tools to make more informed decisions about their well- being and prosperity.

Most of all, the next generation of business leaders can embrace and help promote global understanding.