For the year ending in September 2010, 26.3% of Americans (or 62.8 million people) volunteered through or for an organization at least once, according to the Current Population Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Among working Americans, 29.2% volunteered, compared to 23.8% of unemployed persons and 22% of those not in the labor force.

So, it appears working Americans are ready and willing to donate their time and energy. Companies like IBM and Dow Corning are tapping into that volunteerism spirit among their workforces, sending their highest-performing employees to developing nations to take part in a Corporate Peace Corps.

Why send your best employees halfway across the globe for weeks or months at a time? Large multinational companies in particular are drawn to international corporate volunteerism programs to develop new leaders, discover fresh business opportunities, promote team-building and give back to underserved communities around the globe, experts say.

"It's a leadership development exercise besides being a corporate social responsibility program. It was like a 30-day intensive MBA course in the real world outside our comfort zone in the U.S.," explains Tim Willeford, global communications lead for IBM, and a past participant of the program facilitated by CDC Development Solutions. "It was a life-changing experience. I think we come back with the bigger view and also the hunger to do more and become a global citizen."

IBM sent 11 employees from seven countries to Luxor, Egypt, from February 2010 to March 2010, to help farmers and the displaced Nubian population. The team split into two subteams. One helped farmers gain access to technology and improve the quality of their products with supply- chain exercises to help them begin exporting to Europe. The team also recommended to the Luxor government, Ministry of Trade and Industry, and Ministry of Agriculture to strengthen the farmers associations.

The other subteam helped the Nubian village and cultural center improve on sales from tourists, track sales and inventory, use basic accounting skills and create an overall business plan. They held intensive training programs for the group director to maximize tourist revenue and suggested they hold some cultural events and ceremonies at the center, not the village, to draw tourists in.

The IBM team also recommended an apprenticeship program for the local vocational high school. Few students go on to university, so they set up internships with local restaurants and hotels before they returned to the farms.

In addition, smaller projects addressed smart water projects, transportation and women's rights.

"It was so satisfying knowing that we're all contributing and everybody's skills [came in use] at different times," says Willeford, the only member assigned to both teams.

The selection process was intense - of the 10,000 people who applied, only 400 were selected. Candidates had to be ranked as an above average performer for two of the last three years, have worked at the company at least two years and have an executive recommendation.

Despite the tough selection criteria, the program is thriving. IBM just deployed its 100th team, and past participants have helped populations and companies in 20 countries.

 

Improving engagement, enterprise

In a CDS survey of employees at three corporations who participated in month-long assignments in four countries - India, Peru, the Philippines and Tanzania - 97% said they were more motivated to perform their day-job. For three-quarters of the volunteers, the program also spurred new ideas for products, service or improvements that apply to work. Moreover, 94% say their experience positively changed their perception of their company as a corporate citizen.

"Recognizing that [volunteerism] has many fruits to serve the community, as well as round our employee base," they looked at programs to "hopefully develop and motivate our employee base," says Ed Colbert, director of talent management at Dow Corning.

One past participant of the CDS program, Josh Stevens, a supply-chain quality engineer at Dow Corning, volunteered for one month in Bangalore, India. Prior to the trip, he trained for eight weeks with Dow Corning and CDS to set up logistics and provide innovation training to help the team identify future opportunities or products for the company.

It was a mixed group of 10 individuals, half coming from the United States, where the company is headquartered, and half from four other countries. "We're a very global company, and our CEO didn't want this to be U.S.-centric," explains Colbert. Rather, the company selected participants with different skills, who were geographically dispersed, had different ethnicities and genders, and worked in various positions - from a production operator at a conductor site to the near-executive level and everything in between.

Many, like Stevens, have a background in community service.

"I would have to spend my own vacation time [to volunteer] otherwise, so for Dow Corning to have this opportunity where they're footing the bill and giving me time off, it's really a great benefit for me. It's an additional benefit," he says.

In Bangalore, Stevens worked with a company called Sustain Tech, which markets and sells commercial-sized cook stoves for street vendors and small hotels. These stoves are far more efficient, consume about half as much fuel and are safer. The company needed experience in quality and supply chain, which is right in Dow Corning's wheelhouse, having produced more than 10,000 products.

"From a societal perspective, it gives Dow Corning a visible name in doing something for the world. From a business perspective, quite frankly, it's generated opportunities for us or given us ways to look at things we haven't looked at before - that's the intention. From an employee standpoint, it gives us a leadership and development opportunity in ways that are measurable beyond a Harvard MBA," says Colbert.

He continues: "One thing we learned is that we're going to do it again. It's a program that we're using to help recruit and rebrand to our current employees, and it's giving us a lot of good will, both externally and internally."

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