Giving Thoughts


Q&A with Alexandra van der Ploeg: SAP’s Approach to Pro-Bono

By Alex Parkinson, Research Associate, The Conference Board, and Alexandra van der Ploeg, Global CSR Program Lead, SAP

Earlier this month, PYXERA Global’s Amanda MacArthur answered questions about global pro bono, highlighting the leadership development advantages that such volunteer programs bring. Technology and software solutions company SAP uses these programs to give high-performing employees the chance to develop skills while making a positive impact in the developing world.

Alexandra van der Ploeg, SAP’s Global Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Program Lead, kindly responded to my questions about the logistics of implementing these programs, and why SAP invests so much in them. In Part 1, she describes SAP’s work and how it measures success. Look out for Part 2 next week.

Q: What is the social sabbatical and why did SAP become involved in such pro bono programs?

A: In 2012, SAP introduced the Social Sabbatical program as an innovative learning opportunity for SAP employees to contribute their time and talent to helping social entrepreneurs in emerging markets. Developed in partnership with PYXERA Global, the program strives to solve business challenges, specifically for the social entrepreneurship sector in emerging markets, while strengthening the participants’ leadership competencies, cross-industry know-how, and intercultural sensitivity.

Employees leave the daily routine of their jobs to spend a month with a host client. This experiential learning fosters a cultural shift toward next-generation thinking—it infuses future leaders with the type of creativity they need to problem-solve in an entrepreneurial setting.

It also fortifies the capacity of organizations in emerging markets, by introducing new skillsets and approaches to their business and operational challenges. To date, over 100 SAP employees participated in the program, working with over 30 client organizations in such diverse locations as Brazil, India, China, South Africa and Kenya. Since the social sabbatical began, it has scaled very rapidly from 29 in the beginning to 100 participants on a yearly basis, and from three to eight different countries (we currently have programs for Brazil, India, China, South Africa, Colombia, Turkey, Philippines, and Ethiopia).

In addition, we have developed a concept for a local version of the social sabbatical—the SAP Engaging for Local Impact (SAP ELI) program, where we bring local SAP employees and local organizations together to again work for a month on a clearly defined project.

We have high hopes for this new program, as it would allow significantly more SAP employees to use their skills and expertise to make a difference in their communities. Currently pilots of the SAP ELI program are taking place in the U.S. and Germany.

SAP’s vision is to simplify how organizations run. By doing this with our technology solutions, we can help the world run better and improve people’s lives. To move the needle in CSR we are intent on creating shared value with our programs and at SAP this means that we focus on scaling social enterprises and building a skilled workforce for the technology sector.

Why this focus? From a business perspective it helps us safeguard our future business growth. And from a socio-economic perspective, the world needs to create more than 500 million new jobs by 2020 to provide opportunities for the currently unemployed as well as the future workforce. The bulk of this challenge falls on countries in emerging markets and it is exactly at this intersection of business goals and value for society that the Social Sabbatical comes into play.

The unique set up of the initiative creates triple impact, on the clients, participants and SAP, thus demonstrating true shared value.

Q: How do you measure the program’s success?

A: We measure impact through short- and long-term post assignment surveys. Feedback from all parties shows that we are meeting our goals:

  • Partner organizations: All partners reported satisfaction with the overall experience, with 80 percent indicating they were highly satisfied. These organizations said the SAP Social Sabbatical had the highest impact in the areas of knowledge transfer, strategy planning, service provision and information and communications technology (ICT). Many also indicated that their view of SAP as a company changed positively thanks to the Social Sabbatical program.
  • SAP participants: The Social Sabbatical helps develop two of SAP’s leadership competencies in particular: 77 percent of participants said the program helped with “building trust” and 70 percent said it helped with “driving one SAP”. With regards to the development of general skills, most participants identified cultural awareness (90 percent) and teamwork (85 percent) were the strongest areas of development, followed by intercultural sensitivity (79 percent). Another competency that a strong majority of participants (67 percent) felt was developed was innovative thinking, and 65 percent indicated improved communication skills.

The Social Sabbatical is also an essential instrument to develop new insights into emerging markets, increase knowledge about the needs of multiple stakeholders and bring back innovation for new business development. The post-assignment surveys have also indicated that participants return from the program refreshed, energized and fully committed to the company, and its vision and strategy. As such, the employee engagement index for Social Sabbatical participants is 14 percent higher than for the rest of the SAP Group. Today the Social Sabbatical is the most recognized CSR program within SAP and has the full support of our CEO, Bill McDermott.

SAP will be co-hosting an interactive, one-day workshop in Berlin on the power of global pro bono volunteering on 25 September 2014. Click here to see an agenda.

About the guest:

Alexandra van der Ploeg

Alexandra van der Ploeg
Global CSR Program Lead

Alexandra van der Ploeg has been with SAP since 1999. She started with SAP Switzerland in charge of management development and over the course of the next ten years held various managerial positions in Human Resources. For the past four years, she has managed global CSR programs at SAP AG. In this role, she is in charge of developing and implementing the SAP Social Sabbatical and driving the conceptual design of a variety of pro-bono volunteering offerings. Alexandra van der Ploeg holds an MBA from Henley Business School in Great Britain. She has lived in numerous countries, such as Russia and Brazil, and speaks five languages.

About the author:

Alex Parkinson

Alex Parkinson
Research Associate
The Conference Board

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.

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