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Emerging Voices: Daniel Elliott on International Corporate Volunteerism

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
December 17, 2012

A vegetable vendor waits for customers at her stall in Kliptown, Soweto February 15, 2010 (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters). A vegetable vendor waits for customers at her stall in Kliptown, Soweto February 15, 2010 (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters).


Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Daniel Elliott, program manager at CDC Development Solutions. He discusses how volunteers from multinational companies can address African development challenges and boost their own business knowledge in the process.

In today’s global economy, untapped markets are hard to find. Countries ranging from Eastern Europe to the Asian Tigers have been the darlings of recent decades. Today, as the world looks for the next investment horizon, all signs point to Africa. This is not news to many companies and organizations that are already well-established on the continent. Most new entrants are following a traditional investment strategy. But a new paradigm is beginning to emerge. A growing number of companies are utilizing a different approach to gaining exposure and experience in these new markets: International Corporate Volunteerism (ICV).

“To keep up its fast growth, Africa needs to build its infrastructure and diversify its companies,” The Economist points out. “For that, Africa desperately needs two things: more capital and skilled workers.” ICV programs enable multinational companies to send a team of their employees to countries in Africa (and other locations) for one-month, skills-based volunteer assignments designed to increase the efficiency, efficacy, and capacity of small enterprises, nonprofits, and government organizations. These programs provide African companies and organizations with the global private sector’s top talent at little or no cost. In turn, corporations that deploy their talent in this way increase their visibility in strategic markets while providing their employees with hands-on leadership training that exposes them to the on-the-ground challenges inherent to these geographies. This is a “win-win-win” approach, where all three players involved—local organizations, multinational companies, and their employees—benefit from the experience. Since CDC Development Solutions first began managing ICV programs in 2008, we have deployed more than fifty teams to twelve different countries across Africa, and the number of corporations interested in providing corporate volunteer services on the continent grows each year.

SAP’s new Social Sabbatical Program is a great example of just this approach. SAP just concluded one of their ICV programs in Pretoria, South Africa, following up on their successful inaugural program in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The team of eleven SAP employees helped Employment Solutions and PEN, two local organizations that assist entrepreneurs. The team also worked with a third organization, Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, which works with local tourism operators to establish fair trade practices in their operations. SAP now benefits from unique insights into how small entrepreneurs drive business, as well as exposure to the South African market that it previously did not have. At the same time, these three African organizations are now implementing plans designed together with top marketers and business strategists. SAP has plans to send another team to South Africa in 2013 and to expand their Social Sabbatical program with more teams and new geographies.

Another example comes from Nigeria’s Cross River State. The government there wanted to dramatically improve its grim health statistics—a few years ago, one of every four children did not reach age five—and reduce poverty. As part of its pro bono Corporate Service Corps, IBM dispatched a team of experts to scope the requirements of the region’s ambitious Project Hope and Project Comfort, designed to address the health and poverty crisis. The IBM team recommended strategies for communicating with and registering citizens, as well as capturing patient health information. The government was impressed with IBM’s expertise and asked if it could work with the company on a commercial basis. Subsequently, the company was able to help assure the government’s success in rolling out and administering Project Hope and Project Comfort—making a positive impact on hundreds of thousands of residents.

Surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges facing ICV programs is getting local organizations to host volunteer teams. There are few truly free services in the world, so it is difficult for some to understand that these programs are indeed free of charge. Organizations in emerging markets are also sometimes wary of opening up to a team of foreigners. Once they do understand what ICV programs are all about—the potential for skills transfer to their staff, access to incredible professional expertise, and the opportunity to address critical strategic challenges—most are excited to secure a team for their organization.

Another challenge corporations face with ICV programs is managing the time their employees need to deploy for an assignment. Managers are reluctant to let go of their top talent for four weeks, and employees might get nervous about leaving their families and day jobs for such an extended period. Companies that are serious about ICV programs need to ensure that they are seen as a business, professional, and personal development opportunity valued across the company. SAP, for example, has incorporated the Social Sabbatical Program into its performance evaluations and talent review process.

This is the future of corporate engagement in frontier and emerging markets. Countries across Africa and the developing world, along with multinational companies, stand to gain immensely from this growing investment in human capital.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Mark Gooderl

    What a brilliant concept. This definitely is, as the author states, a “win-win-win” situation. (Excellent writing, by the way.) Kudos to those companies who have had the vision necessary to do something like this.

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