By Alex Parkinson, Research Associate, The Conference Board, and Amanda MacArthur, Vice President of Global Pro Bono, PYXERA Global
Corporations operate employee volunteering programs all over the world, but often they are sporadic, limited initiatives. PYXERA Global helps companies send employees on skills-based assignments with nonprofit and government partners, small- to medium-sized businesses, universities, associations, and other institutions in developing countries, giving both the employee valuable experience and the partner organization expertise for critical business issues.
PYXERA Global’s VP of Global Pro Bono and Engagement, Amanda MacArthur, answered my questions regarding the benefits such programs bring, and trends the industry is seeing.
Q: What is global pro bono and why do companies encourage their employees to participate in these projects?
A: Global pro bono is a practice in which multinational companies such as IBM, The Dow Chemical Company, and SAP send high-performing employees to work on skills-based, deliverable-driven projects in emerging and frontier markets. One of the main drivers for this is cultivating new talent. Global companies need globally competent employees and this is a great approach to combine that with providing transformative value in emerging markets.
Projects are usually team-based and provide the opportunity for employees to develop their soft skills (i.e., leadership, cross-cultural communication, and resiliency) and the hard skills (i.e., marketing and sales, finance, or technology) that are used in the day-to-day of a pro-bono assignment.
Q: What are the hallmarks of an effective global pro bono partnership between companies and nonprofits?
A: Sending a cross-functional team of employees from disparate geographies worldwide into an emerging economy in Africa, Asia, or Latin America requires partnership, flexibility and a high degree of coordination. The most important thing is to have clear and open lines of communication to ensure that expectations are met and managed. If that’s in place, most other challenges can be surmounted.
Q: Last year’s global pro bono benchmarking research showed that the vast majority of companies pay for programs from their CSR budgets, rather than HR budgets. Why is this? Does it suggest that companies consider global pro bono as more of a CSR tool than an employee engagement tool? Do you expect similar findings in this year’s survey?
A: I do expect similar findings in this year’s benchmarking study, though I think we are starting to see a shift towards HR budgets taking more of the responsibility for paying for these programs. We are starting to get good quantitative evidence of the value of global pro bono as a talent-development tool. For example, in its 2012 GSK PULSE Volunteer Partnership Annual Impact Report, pharmaceutical company GSK reported 92 percent of past participants believe the global pro bono assignment equipped them with the skills to better drive change in their organization. Meanwhile, tech company IBM found that 88 percent of past participants have an increased ability to listen for client needs.
I think once this evidence is more established we’ll see more companies funding programs out of their HR budgets. I also think that many companies still view the emerging markets as part of their CSR strategy and not their business strategy—this is also changing and global pro bono is a great way to increase exposure in these markets.
Q: Another finding from your benchmarking study is that companies tend to take part in global pro bono programs in teams. Can you explain a typical team project and its advantages?
A: Team-based programs are popular for a few reasons (aside from the most obvious of encouraging teamwork). For one, there is an economy of scale, so there is some cost savings. There is also a level of comfort with sending a group of people—they have one another to rely on when the culture shock sets in.
The opportunity for cross-company fertilization is also important, as employees from different parts of a company—either different business units or different locations—have the opportunity to work together. In global companies, an employee often has to work with counterparts in multiple countries to which they may have little or no exposure. Team-based global pro bono projects help participating employees to understand how the company operates globally and how they relate to it as an individual.
Q: How do companies measure the social and business value of global pro bono programs?
A: Much of the social impact measurement still relies on outputs, like the number of people trained or the strategy developed. We are now starting to look more closely at how these become outcomes and improve the ability of the local clients to better fulfil their mission and meet the needs of their stakeholders.
From a business perspective, most companies are still relying on self-reporting from the employee with regards to personal and professional development. However, we’re starting to get information about how these programs impact retention and recruitment. A few companies, including IBM and GSK, are starting to survey direct line managers of returned volunteers to understand the impact of the program on the business unit and we’re starting to get great insight from that.
Q: As more companies invest in global pro bono practices, are new models emerging? Do you have any particular examples of successful projects that you can share?
A: There are a number of new models that are being developed to meet different corporate needs and social goals—from shorter-term engagements for executive-level employees to virtual programs. One company PYXERA Global works with, The Dow Chemical Company launched its Leadership in Action (LIA) program last year in Ghana. LIA is a novel program that joins the company’s Dow Sustainability Corps (DSC) and human resources to offer a unique twist on leadership development.
Through the program, seven teams of Dow employees worked virtually—through conference calls and internet—with a university, social enterprise, or nonprofit to help solve pressing local challenges. At the end of five months of virtual collaboration, the consulting teams travelled to Ghana to spend several days with their local client and hand-off the deliverable. PYXERA Global is now facilitating this “virtual global pro bono” model with eight new Dow teams in Ethiopia, a relatively new market for the company.
About the guest:
As Vice President of Global Pro Bono and Engagement at PYXERA Global, Amanda MacArthur leads the organization’s Global Pro Bono and MBAs Without Borders programs, as well as The Center for Citizen Diplomacy. In this capacity, Amanda designs and implements corporate social responsibility programs for the public and private sector focused on skills-based volunteerism in emerging markets, leadership development, and sustainable economic impact. Most recently, Amanda played a key role in designing IBM’s Corporate Service Corps, while overseeing Global Pro Bono programs for PepsiCo, Pfizer, FedEx, and several others.
About the author:
Alex Parkinson is a Research Associate in the Corporate Leadership division of The Conference Board. He specializes in corporate philanthropy and sustainability. He is the Executive Editor of the Giving Thoughts blog and monthly publication series. Before joining The Conference Board in September 2013, Alex worked as a Senior Consultant in London and New York for corporate social responsibility (CSR) consultancy Context. He has advised some of the world’s leading multinationals on CSR communications and strategy development. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AlexParkinsonNY.