A Spectrum of Volunteer Service Can Increase Employee Engagement, Corporate Citizenship, and Global Impact

In an abandoned beer brewery in the 4th District of Porto Alegre, Brazil, Walker Massa sees the future of his city. His organization, Nós Coworking, has retrofitted the building and turned it into a shared workspace where small businesses, budding entrepreneurs, students, artists or anyone who is looking for space to ply their trade can buy credits (about $4 for an hour) and use their facilities. An open floor plan, equipped with work stations, conference rooms, high-speed Wi-Fi, and a shared refrigerator, it is on par with the hundreds of other shared workspaces sprouting up around the world.

Yet, Nós Coworking is different, nestled in the heart of a run-down part of Porto Alegre—the 4th District—where prostitutes rub shoulders with vagrants, drug dealers, and stray dogs. By establishing Nós Coworking in this neighborhood, Walker has planted seeds of revitalization. Under its influence, the 4th District has the potential to become an entrepreneurial, high-tech hub that can attract business and investment. Given its central location, countless buildings just waiting to be rehabbed, and city hall’s commitment to the area, this vision only needed a team of highly-skilled, energetic people to dedicate themselves for a period of time to get it off the ground. A team from SAP’s Social Sabbatical, the company’s global pro bono service program, was there to help.

SAP sends teams of employees for one-month assignments to work with non-profit organizations, entrepreneurship incubators, and social enterprises in emerging markets around the world, to help them address specific business challenges or organizational issues. A team of three SAP employees worked with Walker last October to strategically solidify his vision for the 4th District. He now has the blueprint he needs to get started.

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Taking It to the Next Level

As corporate social responsibility initiatives advance and pro bono ventures become more strategic in nature, the future of pro bono service becomes vital to ensuring its relevance to the organization’s broader corporate objectives. This means that CSR, Sustainability, and Corporate Citizenship departments are seeking to strategically redefine themselves from “nice to have” to “need to have.” Companies who value the impact of pro bono service and want to increase employee engagement should consider three strategic approaches: Creating an immersive global experience to engage what SAP terms ‘early talents,’ new hires with high potential; aligning skills-based volunteering opportunities with domestic engagements; and fostering strategic partnerships with local organizations that can empower multiple teams to develop even more effective solutions to bigger challenges.

Immersive Global Exposure Can Orient New-hires

A recent study by PwC, the University of Southern California, and the London Business School examines the aspirations, work styles and values of Millennial and Gen Y employees—those born between 1980 and 1995. Two data points from the study perfectly align with two key benefits of global pro bono programs. First, Millennials are “loyalty-lite”—54 percent say they expect to work for between two and five employers during their career, and a quarter say they expect to work for six or more. The second was how mobile this generation expects to be and that they truly value cross-border experiences. Seventy-one percent expect or desire overseas professional experience.

SAP’s Social Sabbatical and other pro bono service programs help retain top talent. A survey of 48 recently returned SAP Social Sabbatical participants—33 percent of who fall in the Millenial and Gen Y generations—showed that all either agree or strongly agree with the following statement: “After my Social Sabbatical experience, I am more motivated to perform in my work at SAP.” What’s more, 98 percent said they are proud to work for SAP.

In 2009, Deloitte created a fellowship program for recent MBA graduates that provided global orientation prior to the start of their full-time jobs as consultants. Utilizing global pro bono experiences for identified early talents in the new hire pool can help scratch that traveler’s itch while at the same time increasing the employee’s loyalty to the company and likelihood that they will stick around. Millennials are quickly becoming a plurality of the workforce; companies must prepare to offer the benefits and incentives they demand.

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Domestic Skills-based Programs Provide Engagement Opportunities For More Employees

Some companies face pressures to expand their global pro bono service initiative to all employees, not just early talents, high performers, or future leaders. Not everyone is cut out for the cultural and professional shock immersive international pro bono consulting brings, nor can most employees commit to extricating themselves from their day to day lives for an extended period of time.

Yet, there are plenty of ways in which companies can engage employees at all levels to leverage their business skills to help local organizations closer to home. Non-profits in the developed world are as much in need of skills-based assistance as those in emerging markets. Organizations like Taproot and Catchafire place corporate teams with organizations across the United States. In Kazakhstan, Tengizchevroil, a business unit of Chevron, has created a similar domestic skills-based program that engages the company’s employees in skills-based assignments with NGOs in need in Atyrau, the center of the country’s oil industry.

Traditional volunteer activities like cleaning up a park or helping to paint a school will continue to be valuable activities for community engagement and development, but why not also design a program that can help the local parks department more efficiently coordinate their garbage collection system, or assist a school in developing a “Young Entrepreneurs” after-school program? A domestic skills-based pro bono program can tap into a company’s entire workforce by offering similar engagement to what others are doing abroad.

Extend Pro Bono Impact Through Strategic Partnerships That Involve Multiple Teams

Feedback from virtually all organizations that receive the support of a team of pro bono consultants is overwhelmingly positive. “Game-changing” and “a breath of fresh air” are common ways their work is described. The biggest limitation global pro bono programs face; however, is the time constraint. Virtually all host organizations wish the program could be longer, or that the engagement with the team could address their organizational challenges in greater depth. Unfortunately, there is only so much time that a company can release an employee from their day job to engage in a pro bono program. The standard has become about one month, with one month of virtual part-time pre-work prior to deployment.

Thankfully, this challenge is not insurmountable. A growing number of companies are experimenting with developing a longer-term scope of work approach that can be started by one team and finished by another. SAP is sending another team back to Porto Alegre in April 2014 to continue working with Walker and Nós Coworking on the project started in October. Their focus will be to take the blueprint designed by the first team and begin outlining concrete steps for Nós Coworking to turn that vision into reality.

By increasing the time horizon of projects across teams, companies can mitigate the time crunch factor all teams face and build more in-depth projects that will truly transform the client organization. A simple model of concept development followed by a team who guides execution could provide a powerful roadmap for implementing longer term, more sustainable projects.

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The 21st Century demands that multi-national companies become increasingly strategic in how they allocate scarce resources and develop their most important asset—their human capital. Strategically aligning with the business interests of local market units can establish a strong base from which to build a case for sustained global pro bono programs. While the primary goal of pro bono projects is not to specifically generate business leads, the residual effects of such engagements often leave business opportunities ripe for the picking. Incorporating a far-sighted approach by selecting strategic cities where the sending company has a strong and active local presence, or partnering with organizations that already have an established relationship with the local team, can enable pro bono ventures to fertilize business strategies. The business case makes itself.

Executed correctly, corporate citizenship departments can utilize global and domestic pro bono programs to effectively leverage employee skills and experiences, while at the same time aligning those programs to the business strategies of local market units. The culmination of this investment is a more engaged and energized workforce whose increased pride and loyalty will enhance professional performance.

Jose Cesar Martins, one of Walker’s associates who also seeks to revitalize Porto Alegre’s 4th District, wrote in Portuguese about the experience he had with the SAP team. “They really left a contribution that, for me, can be historic.” Companies that embrace a strategic approach to their employee volunteering programs will one day change Jose’s “can be” to “will be.” These new ways of thinking are just scratching the surface of what is possible.

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Along with the three SAP employees that worked with Nós Coworking in Porto Alegre, nine additional SAP employees were paired up with three other organizations in the city that included the mayor’ office, Junior Achievement and Semente Negocios. Twelve-person teams were also sent to Shanghai, China, Bangalore, India, and Johannesburg, South Africa.

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