The Future of Global Pro Bono

The world of corporate volunteering has many different flavors, with traditional volunteering & skills-based volunteering being the most well-known. A specialized kind of skills-based volunteering is the field of Global Pro Bono (GPB), which brings talented employees from the private sector to volunteer their skills & professional expertise to address key business challenges for social sector organizations.

Since I was exposed to the world of GPB over 7 years ago through the SAP Social Sabbatical program, I have observed the concept of triple impact, a key differentiator for GPB programs, come to life. Triple impact refers to the idea that a GPB engagement will result in a positive impact for society, the participating employee, and their company. Most of the marquee programs in this field have been developed to be transformational opportunities, set up to be in-person, global, immersive experiences aimed at providing experiential development opportunities for both employees & social sector leaders.

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced and exacerbated many challenges for our society, and the practice of GPB has not been able to avoid its own difficulties. With travel restrictions and current health conditions around the globe inhibiting person-to-person interactions, many programs are shifting to a virtual format, which has resulted in questions about whether we will indeed return to the highly successful in-person models.

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of delivering the closing keynote at the Asia-Pacific (APAC) Regional Pro Bono Summit, where I was able to share five key areas that will shape the future of pro bono as we navigate the pandemic and its related socio-economic impact.

#1: Play the “long game”

GPB programs should be viewed as a strategic investment from both the corporate & social sector standpoint. Quite often the largest impact of pro bono programs is not realized immediately, but in the medium to long term. It is important to look beyond outputs and outcomes, and instead place a real focus on the deep, sustainable impact that programs have on the host client organizations and participants.

In my experience, some of the best pro bono projects are those in which the human connection between the client & participants is extremely strong. A key factor in driving this kind of engagement is the program selection process—ensuring that the employees are coming with the right motivation and the clients are brought in with an understanding of the impact the assignment will have on them. The project scope should be completely based upon the client’s needs and address a timely, critical aspect of its business moving forward. Setting the right expectations, coaching participants through best practices on engaging with clients, and focusing on building trust are all at the heart of achieving that strong relationship and long-term impact.

Some of the best pro bono projects are those in which the human connection between the client & participants is extremely strong.

#2: Focus on transformational impact

There is some debate in the GPB world about whether these programs should be developed as transformational experiences or transactional exchanges. In most cases, the answer would depend on the respective goals for the program. However, as we look to the future of pro bono, I believe that, in order to truly harness the power of pro bono, we need to think of it as a tool for transformation.

In April 2020, PYXERA Global conducted a survey of former GPB host organizations to understand their outlook on “Organizational Resilience in the face of COVID-19.” The survey results make clear that participation in GPB programs has helped prepare many organizations with the resilience necessary not only to survive the COVID-19 crisis but also to thrive as we emerge back out into a “new normal.”

Taking an inside-out look at this question, we have always positioned our SAP Social Sabbatical program as a “life-changing” experience for our participants, which may sound cliché; however, we continue to hear that phrase time and time again from our participants after they go through the engagement. They return as champions of SAP CSR and pro bono volunteering, with many of them continuing to stay engaged in other initiatives for years to come. From a client perspective, the program is designed to be a transformative experience. We aim to create a stronger, more resilient organization that can take a concrete step along their growth trajectory.

A recent example of a timely, transformational experience was one I heard from Prem Yadav, CEO of Pratham Infotech Ltd. (PIF), based in Mumbai, India. A long-time SAP CSR partner and SAP Social Sabbatical host client in February 2020, PIF faced the challenge of digitizing their curriculum in order to reach approximately 3 million students over the next 2-3 years. The project scope was “forward-looking” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but quickly became an immediate need as our new reality became more apparent. PIF was able to pivot quickly to implement the recommendations from the team and digitize their learning content. As a result, even while dealing with the pandemic over the past months, they have already achieved their initial goal of reaching 3 million students while continuing to look for ways to leverage this curriculum for even greater reach and impact. It is this kind of organizational transformation that we aim to drive through our pro bono programs.

#3: Develop meaningful partnerships

While strong partnerships continue to be a cornerstone of the success of Global Pro Bono programs, there remains significant room for improvement when we think broadly about partnerships that can further the GPB movement:

  • Multi-company collaboration: Bringing together employees from different companies to work on GPB projects together is a great way to improve the experience for those involved, while simultaneously increasing the overall impact for host clients. We have seen how the experience of multi-company teams is further enriched by the different methodologies, tools, ways of working, and corporate culture that participants from diverse industries bring with them. While these collaborations are difficult to coordinate, based on our experience and realized benefits, I would strongly urge you to explore such opportunities. Besides, these projects allow you to “test-drive” GPB prior to launching a full-scale program.
  • Intermediary partnerships: Bringing best practices into program design and expertise in project implementation by partnering with an intermediary partner is a great way to set your programs up for success. We have an 8+ year partnership with PYXERA Global during which we have been able to develop, grow, and expand our SAP Social Sabbatical portfolio, leverage our collective ecosystem, and create new initiatives jointly. The spirit of co-innovation has allowed us to respond to challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to stay focused on serving our host clients.

#4: Evaluate different engagement models

Traditionally, a majority of GPB programs have been established as in-person engagements, often requiring participants to travel internationally. The pandemic thrust us into a virtual world very suddenly this year, which posed a significant threat to traditional GPB service.

There are varied opinions on whether we will return to the pre-pandemic levels of in-person pro bono volunteering. In my view, COVID-19 cannot strip away years of evidence that point to the impact that pro bono program models deliver. The unique nature of the triple impact realized through in-person, immersive programs is second to none and should continue to deliver meaningful impact in years to come.

At the same time, the pandemic has certainly accelerated the ability to test and learn from different engagement models. It has given rise to a variety of virtual programs that organizations like ours have been able to analyze over the past few months as we sought to continue engaging our highly motivated employee base. New virtual engagement models have some clear differentiators and advantages over their traditional counterparts, such as the ability to scale globally at a much lower cost and increased flexibility with regards to client selection for a certain program, among others.

Looking ahead, it appears clear that virtual pro bono program models are here to stay, and it will be imperative for pro bono practitioners to consider them in their overall portfolio. We must look at the objectives that we want our pro bono programs to accomplish and create a mix of different engagement models that allows us to achieve those goals. One other opportunity that we observed during the pandemic was that, by leveraging these different pro bono models, we were able to address issue areas outside of our regular focus, such as access to healthcare and social justice.

Looking ahead, it appears clear that virtual pro bono program models are here to stay, and it will be imperative for pro bono practitioners to consider them in their overall portfolio.

#5: Widen the lens of leadership development

Employee engagement & leadership development are considered major components of pro bono volunteering programs. As we gaze into the future, I believe that we need to take a more comprehensive look at the idea of leadership development – not just for the corporate employees that participate, but also for the leaders and staff at the host client organization.

In today’s world, where a high degree of turmoil exists on so many different levels, this facet of Global Pro Bono is important to highlight as we look ahead. Building resilient, inclusive leaders who lead with empathy, practice active listening, and encourage diversity of thought is crucial to any organization, no matter whether it falls within the private, public, or social sector. In my experience, there are no better means of developing strong, well-rounded leaders than through an experiential leadership development setting like a GPB program.

I believe these five key themes are vital as we lean on the field of Global Pro Bono as an essential tool to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and seek to build a stronger, more resilient world.

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