Skills-Based Volunteering: The New Executive Training Ground

Young people are gaining cultural skills and insight through volunteering that will influence their decisions for decades to come.

A growing number of corporations tout the billions of hours employees spend volunteering, and some have even made concerted efforts to engage in skills-based pro bono volunteerism through initiatives such as A Billion + Change. It turns out, being dedicated to social good pays off, especially when it comes to retaining members of the millennial, generation who value the opportunity to make a difference more highly than any other benefit. According to the Center for Talent Innovation, 91 percent of Gen X women and 76 percent of Gen X men say that it is important to contribute to their communities or the world through their work.

Discussions of the benefits of volunteerism typically focus on the impact such programs yield for their nonprofit beneficiaries, but perhaps more deserving of attention is the way such programs develop leadership talent within volunteers themselves. Building a corps of employees who are successfully able to lead is—according to Josh Bersin, an expert on talent development—the most critical indicator of a corporation’s future performance: “If you’re an investor, watching the CEO is important—but look at how they build, develop, and attract leadership. This is perhaps the most important thing they do.”

Often, however, effective leadership development is much more easily demanded than achieved. University-based executive education programs are costly and deliver few, if any, auxiliary benefits to the corporation beyond the talent of the individual participant. International Corporate Volunteerism (ICV), a relatively new approach, provides leadership development opportunities for top talent while also delivering returns in R&D, marketing, business development, and social impact. A recent George Washington University study found that ICV programs are a more effective leadership development experience—both in cost and the diversity of learning—than elite, pedagogically based programs.

Today’s Volunteers Are Tomorrow’s Leaders

Through service learning, today’s corporate volunteers are becoming tomorrow’s corporate leaders—with great potential to impact the decisions they make on behalf of their company. PepsiCo, IBM, Medtronic, and others are sending employees into emerging markets, where they learn first-hand about the complexity of issues facing the developing world and how to begin introducing solutions to diverse challenges.

A small group of PepsiCo employees, for example, set out to improve water distribution in Southern Ketu, Ghana, through PepsiCorps, a leadership development program that promotes the transfer of business skills to communities in need. Unlike other areas of Ghana, the issue was not primarily access to clean water. Instead, the district assembly, local chiefs, and community as a whole struggled to manage water distribution.

To strengthen the management system, the PepsiCorps team advised reinstating quarterly reviews that had been long overlooked. They devised revenue management systems and set up a water hotline to empower the local community to report water issues directly. 

Beyond recommendations, the team also organized a workshop to train district assembly leaders on techniques to promote behavioral change. Toward the end of the project, local chiefs directly proposed improvements in the water system at a public meeting, all of which passed immediately, with lively engagement from attendees in the local community.

Another example: In Chennai, India, two Medtronic employees worked on-site at Saveetha Medical College Hospital, a nonprofit that provides free and low-cost medical services to nearly 600 residents each day. Within just one month, the volunteers designed India’s first-ever study for diabetes caregivers. After administering the survey to more than 150 local caregivers, aggregating this data, and sharing the findings with Saveetha’s staff, the volunteers gained an experiential understanding of environmental and economic factors that can impact India’s healthcare system. As one volunteer stated, “When looking at innovation in emerging markets, you often need to put down the challenge that you have and develop a whole new paradigm for the problem you’re looking to answer.”

Alice Korngold, an expert on leadership development spoke with Susan Wedge, a Partner in IBM’s Global Business Services Public Sector, who served on one of IBM's Executive Service Corps teams in Romania:

“When you are working with people who speak a different language and live in a different culture than you do, your sensitivity to communication is heightened in new ways," Susan remarked. "That is a learning experience that you bring back to your own more familiar work environment. It changes you.”

Serving as an international corporate volunteer has a regenerative effect on its participants, reminding employees of the individual impact they can generate through their unique talents, which strengthens employee pride and retention. But more than that, participants learn how to adapt and solve difficult problems in a new environment, and bring this adaptive global leadership mindset back to their home office. This kind of action learning provides employees with direct exposure to markets in which both their employer and the developing world operate. Lessons like these can’t be taught—they can only be learned.

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  • BY Julia Gometz

    ON January 8, 2013 06:30 AM

    I Love your article. Volunteering is a win-win for everyone. I had never really seen it as a training opportunity but it makes good sense. I also see it as contributing to the brand of the organization and I call out volunteerism as one of the six vehicles through which employees can be brandful.

  • BY Loren Guerriero

    ON January 10, 2013 09:34 AM

    This is extremely timely. Some of us in the volunteer management industry are starting to believe that the term “Skills-Based” will eventually disappear as it is recognized that everyone brings skills to the table, and that volunteer positions with very specific purposes are more effective and more rewarding. So much of the reason that people volunteer is to make a positive contribution, and that value is enhanced when the opportunity truly leverages their unique talent. Our humanitarian and development organization, Mercy Corps, only hires skilled interns to assist with programs in the field. My particular program, MicroMentor, engages business professionals to mentor entrepreneurs, with an increasing focus on partnering with corporate groups - more here: http://www.micromentor.org/mentor/corporate-engagement-employee-volunteering

  • BY Mike Hickey

    ON January 10, 2013 03:25 PM

    Folks should also check out the really remarkable pro bono projects being built by the Civic Consulting Alliance in Chicago (http://www.ccachicago.org) - which aggregates high level corporate support and provides it to the public sector.  Civic Consulting is now expanding their model to NYC and other cities in the US.

  • BY Brian Gloede

    ON January 10, 2013 03:28 PM

    Certainly appreciate this perspective being represented—and the opportunity that it presents for the Fortune 500 to implement such programs!

    As a former Fortune 500 employee myself, I would have jumped at such an opportunity (and maybe, just maybe, would not be a “former” employee as a result!). 

    Where I see additional opportunity and need are among those that employers don’t already heap professional development opportunities on: the rising professional.  While these programs will certainly serve the first batch of impact-focused Millennials as they reach middle management in 10 years—what’s a emerging professional to do in the interim?

    I suppose that’s a roundabout way of saying: excellent article, and I see a lot of room for innovation in this space—which is why I’m working on a solution to the problem I posed above—it’s called Quarterback.


  • BY Aaron Hurst, Taproot Foundation

    ON January 11, 2013 08:31 AM

    Amen!  Great story!

  • Alicia Bonner Ness's avatar

    BY Alicia Bonner Ness

    ON January 11, 2013 05:19 PM

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! It’s so great to see so much support for this idea. Loren, it’s interesting to hear about the skepticism around the enduring nature of “skills-based” volunteering. We have found that global pro bono projects that have a honed scope of work and an expected deliverable area really getting after just what you said, helping people use their unique talents for good in a more meaningful way.

  • There might be a hidden message in this: Not so much that volunteers are future leaders, but that leaders serve. The best leaders discover opportunity in the people they serve, and facilitate ideas to advance progress. The best examples I’ve seen in post-Katrina recovery are ones where local knowledge is reinforced, not supplanted by outside “experts.”

  • BY Emily Kessler, NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund

    ON January 21, 2013 02:41 PM

    This is a wonderful example of how an organized volunteer program can both enhance employee leadership skills and bring about social impact in a community.  For those individuals who would like to take on pro bono projects to build their skill set, they often run into situations where their talents are not being fully utilized.  Many nonprofits would open their arms to volunteer workers, but may not have the capacity to take full advantage of their potential.  We at the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund offer the Project Management Committee every year, using volunteer talent to deliver technical support and build the capacity of our annual investee.  Members of the PMC share skills and develop new talents while working on three projects throughout the year.  This investment of time and knowledge enhances our annual cash grant, which is offered to a NYC-based nonprofit annually. 

    In order to remain competitive in today’s labor force, work experience may not always be enough.  Volunteering in an organized program that offers an opportunity to develop new and important skills is a cost-effective way to develop oneself professionally.

  • Fressia Cerna's avatar

    BY Fressia Cerna

    ON January 23, 2013 10:39 AM

    I found the article very interesting, and I believe volunteering is a two ways wining, the efforts a professional puts into the volunteer experience and the learned experience that comes as results. I would like to volunteer for a year in Africa, and I’ve tried to find an organization that would support my effort, but has been impossible at least until now. Is it possible to find a way to become volunteer?
    The point is I am able to work, but need some support such as living and everyday expenses, etc. What are the odds of doing this?

    Great article

  • BY Bruce Summers

    ON January 23, 2013 06:50 PM

    Always great to see a thoughtful profile of the value of strategic volunteer engagement.  Skills based volunteering like pro bono volunteering, done right is a great win-win for the employee volunteer, the company, the nonprofit its service delivery clients. Thanks for sharing, have seen most of this before, but still great to put a spot light on the features and benifits of SB Volunteering and Internatinal Corporate Volunteer Engagement. Need to think more about how to connect more corporate skilled based and pro bono volunteers with the international development work of the task teams I work with, hmmm?

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