Leading Corporations Use Volunteering to Achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals

“People are the only real thing that will change the world.”  These words, articulated by Grady Lee, are the philosophy behind IMPACT 2030, a global private sector-led collaboration announced on International Volunteer Day in 2014. It aims to mobilize corporate volunteers to contribute directly and sustainably to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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IMPACT 2030 Founding Partners, including The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, IBM Corporation, SAP SE, UPS, Perkins Coie, and Waggener Edstrom Communications, have already committed both financial and human resources to the initiative. But the initiative’s goal is far more ambitious. Sue Stephenson, Vice President of CSR at The Ritz Carlton and Vice Chair of the IMPACT 2030, hopes to sign up 100 multinational corporations by the initiative’s official launch in September 2015. Others committed as Collaborating Partners include SingTel, Google, Alcoa, Telefonica, Cemex, La Caixa, and Ball Corporation.

The project will provide essential support to the United Nations.  “The effective implementation of the post-2015 development agenda, no matter how ambitious or transformational, will remain limited without well-facilitated corporate volunteer action,” said Will Kennedy, Senior Program Officer for the United Nations Office for Partnerships, and one of the originators of IMPACT 2030.

In his role, Kennedy works to promote new partnerships that support the United Nations. His experience building commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, he said, taught him that when the private sector engages in high-need communities, they can make a big impact. “This is an effective way to appropriately engage business, and provide a first-hand experience to these needs.”

Kathleen Dennis, Executive Director of the International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE), said volunteers will be a crucial part of achieving the SDGs. “If volunteering is not included in the final SDG document, then resources will not be dedicated to volunteering in the post 2015 agenda,” she said. “Volunteers are not paid but volunteering is not free.” In other words, though volunteering can generate mutual gain for all partners involved, including the sending organization, the receiving community, and the volunteers themselves, such deployments require time and resources.

Developed by a working group of approximately two dozen volunteers from a wide range of corporations, non-profits, and the United Nations, including GSK PULSE, Ritz Carlton, Google, Points of Light, Realized Worth, CorpsGiving, and PYXERA Global,  this new initiative responds to a 2011 United Nations Resolution that explicitly “welcome[d] the expanding involvement of the private sector in support of volunteerism, and encourages its further engagement through the expansion of corporate volunteering and employee volunteer activities.”

Sue Stephenson summarized the initiative’s central intent. “IMPACT 2030 is the only business-led effort designed to marshal the power of human capital investments to address UN Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals in developed and developing nations—and the first time that companies will unite their corporate volunteering efforts to address the UN Development Agenda through collaboration,” she said.

For her, the initiative is motivated by a need to both unlock new resources and build on those already committed. “IMPACT 2030 provides a platform for companies to both contribute to the positive reconstruction of the social fabric of countries around the world and have their employee volunteer commitments counted as a major contributor to this global endeavor,” she said.

Skills-based volunteering continues to grow in popularity as a social impact strategy for corporations. But large multinational companies aren’t alone in their enthusiasm for volunteering. The United Nations, the European Union, and national governments have all embraced the opportunity to empower volunteers to make a difference. In late September 2014, a group of more than 200 representatives from government and institutional volunteer initiatives met in Bonn, Germany at the invitation of Richard Dictus, the Executive Coordinator of UN Volunteers. The two-day forum provided an opportunity for institutional stakeholders from a wide range of countries—including America’s Peace Corps, FK Norway, and a host of UN agencies—to join an important conversation about the UN’s ambitious commitment to volunteering.

Gina Casar, the UNDP Associate Administrator, lauded the UN’s impressive volunteer force. “More than 6,000 volunteers, and 11,000 online volunteers, serve in challenging, post-conflict environments,” she said. Close to 80 percent of UN volunteers come from the Global South; their average age is 38. These individuals serve in 129 countries through 34 different UN partner organizations and agencies. According to Dictus, the corps of individuals includes five neurosurgeons and ten rocket scientists.

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UN Volunteers help agencies address breakdowns in their talent pipeline, while bringing the unique value of volunteerism into their projects. To respond to an urgent need, the agency can deploy a volunteer to the field in as little as one month, far faster than trying to make a full-time hire. As a result, UN Volunteers account for close to 30 percent of civilian personnel in Peacekeeping alone.

Dictus, appointed to his post just over two years ago, is a refreshing mix of humility and exuberance. On the forum’s second day, he skipped the traditional UN podium in favor of a more natural and dynamic engagement with the audience, speaking extemporaneously about the issue at hand rather than from prepared remarks.

“You can only make a difference through service,” he told said, before offering a deluge of rhetorical questions to frame the day’s program.

“How do we give leadership roles to young people when most of our society values grey hair? What are the different ways to eliminate the barriers that keep people from volunteering?” he asked. “How do we explain that volunteering is not a “nice to have”? How can we have this conversation not just here but at the national level in every country?”

To showcase the potential impact of UN Volunteers eight volunteers were selected to give inspiring talks about the benefits they had gained and delivered through their service.

Bobby Baker, an Irishman and engineer has spent the past two years supporting improvement of water and sanitation infrastructure in South Sudan. He said he learned important lessons through his service.

“My father used to say that two heads are better than one, which was opposite from my mother, who said too many cooks spoiled the broth,” he said. The audience chuckled. As it turns out, Baker learned in the field that neither was exactly right.

“To create the perfect partnership, you simply have to work hard to work together,” Baker said. For him, this included building local relationships, sharing stories of his family with others, and learning about the experiences of others he regularly works with.

Bip Nandi, a surgeon and UN Volunteer who has spent more than a year and a half in Malawi, described the tremendous professional opportunity his experience offered. In remote places like Malawi, many patients die waiting for surgical intervention. During his service, Nandi completed more than 500 major life-saving pediatric surgeries.

“UNV has left an indelible change in me. I hope that we together can create a change in pediatric surgery,” he said.

Just five days before the Bonn forum, a group of more than 50 representatives from Europe-based companies, nonprofits, and institutional partners gathered in Berlin for a one-day workshop on creating corporate pro bono volunteer programs. The day-long event was hosted by SAP, with support from PYXERA Global and Berlin-based UPJ. SAP launched its Social Sabbatical, a one-month global pro bono experience for top talent within the company, in 2011. And it has continued to expand its commitment to pro bono volunteering to enhance the company’s sustainable development efforts.

“SAP is excited to be on the cutting edge of pro bono and volunteer programming. We are committed to finding creative ways to use the talent of our employees as a resource that can enhance the effectiveness of organizations around the world,” said Alicia Lenze, the Global VP of CSR at SAP. “We are thrilled to be a founding partner of IMPACT 2030 as it aligns well with our company’s commitment to meaningfully contribute to coordinated global development efforts.”

The workshop title ‘Achieving Triple Impact effectively captured the growing understanding that these pro bono experiences are a “win-win-win”: the companies, the participants, and the organizations served all benefit as a result. At the workshop, SAP and others outlined ways in which programs could be developed, launched, managed and measured.

Over the course of the day, participants from programs at John Deere, Celanese, IBM, and Merck discussed their experience volunteering in-country, solving new problems and learning about other cultures. The speakers had been deeply changed by their volunteer experience. Helle Dochedahl, the head of Pre-Sales for EMEA at SAP, spoke to both the personal benefit she had experienced through her service experience in India, as well as the value she knows the SAP Social Sabbatical program delivered to the company and the community. The participants all agreed: “transformative” was the most accurate word to describe their experience.

Deirdre White, the CEO of PYXERA Global offered a challenge to those convened, one that would surely be seconded by Stephenson, Dictus, and others.

“It’s not enough to keep doing more of the same—the problems are too big and the needs too many,” she said. “I would challenge you to do more to get other companies to follow your example, to do more to start or scale up your own programs, to engage more purposefully, and to think about what innovations we can bring to this proven model [of global pro bono] that will more quickly and more effectively address the greatest global challenges.”

Photos Courtesy of IMPACT 2030.

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