When Ashanka, a Microsoft employee of four years, asked her manager for two weeks off to go and volunteer her skills in Africa through the Microsoft MySkills4Afrika program, he raised a skeptical eyebrow. His education sales team had serious commitments to meet by the end of the fiscal year, and losing a critical team member for two weeks would be hard to justify. 

His reaction wasn’t unusual—or out of line. But Ashanka was persistent, and used program data and anecdotal evidence to build her case. For roughly the same time and cost associated with going to a conference, she told her manager, she could grow as a leader, capture business insights, and contribute to citizenship initiatives. And ultimately, her manager said, “Yes.”

Many managers object to having employees participate in international corporate volunteer programs on the grounds that they can’t spare them. But our world has never needed programs like this more. The United Nations, in Sustainable Goal #17, has called on cross-sector partnerships to help build capacity; volunteer programs are a critical part of its development agenda. What’s more, there are real positive returns for the business when they give employees “stretch experiences,” even if doing so puts additional pressure on their colleagues over the short term. As previous articles have noted, programs such as these represent the “New Executive Training Ground.”

The key is getting them right. Ashanka’s approach, along with the experiences of others who have participated in the Microsoft MySkills4Afrika program and the evolution of the program itself, suggest a path.

Ashanka’s experience

Ashanka leading a training. (Photo by Ashanka Iddya)

To prepare for her trip, Ashanka engaged in a four-week planning process (while maintaining her full job responsibilities) that included spending time with her manager to set personal learning goals that aligned with her aspirations at work.

Once in Africa, her task was to consult with the education ministry of Rwanda and help build capacity in small businesses serving the education system, including Computer Revolution Uganda and Axxiom Technologies. In addition to training more than 100 professionals and small business leaders on partnership-building and sales, she worked directly with the Education Minister of Rwanda to showcase how online productivity and collaboration tools could improve internal operations, and be used to benefit more than three million students across the country— enabling them with a 21st century classroom that will prepare them for secure employment opportunities in a global economy. 

After returning, Ashanka followed through by scheduling time with her manager to reflect on the things she learned, which helped her internalize important lessons. She also prepared a formal debrief report with strategy, product, and process suggestions for all her stakeholders—the organizations she supported, her business team, and Microsoft as a whole. Lastly, she completed a required impact assessment that MySkills4Afrika uses to monitor skill development; she also encouraged her hosting organizations and their beneficiaries to complete their own assessments to measure skill building, organizational, and end-beneficiary impact.

Anecdotal feedback combined with data proved what Ashanka had previously sold her manager on: The program did provide business benefits while accelerating social impact in the field. Since Ashanka’s time in the field, the Rwanda Minister of Education has publicized his plan to increase access to technology across schools, and the organizations Ashanka worked with have reported strengthened partnerships and improved organizational capabilities. 

And Ashanka’s manager? He’s already approved Ashanka’s next trip, promoted the MySkills4Afrika program to his team, and event met with his General Manager to explore how the entire business unit can benefit from the insights Ashanka’s gained in the field. 

Four steps to scale—and to prove the impact of—international corporate volunteering programs.

Ashanka’s fact-based and goal oriented approach to her volunteering experience were critical to its success. But the volunteer program itself also positioned her to do well for herself, for the organizations she was helping, and for her team at work. The Microsoft MySkills4Afrika program was launched in 2013. Since then, it has managed more than 400 volunteer placements across 17 countries in Africa. It also is responsible for transferring skills to 9,000-plus students, entrepreneurs, and professionals, and in the process, benefitting more than 2,000,000 Africans. Over time (and informed by participants such as Ashanka), program leaders have identified four steps that has helped it design effective international corporate volunteering programs, scale their impact, and prove their worth. 

1: Align your program to corporate, leadership, and citizenship goals.

Aligning your program across these three areas within your company will help build the case for a return on investment:

  1. Business outcomes and strategies (for example, gaining geographical awareness)
  2. Leadership development priorities (for example, developing a more collaborative work force that is able to adapt to new situations readily)
  3. Citizenship aspirations (for example, supporting youth education),

Aligning to outcomes across multiple business units, if possible, is also a good move; by doing so, you will save time and resources in the future when you need support from other stakeholders, and help promoting volunteer programs.

2: Focus on authentic experiences rather than on excessive preparation or program management.

Often times, leadership programs are tightly managed to ensure a consistent experience among all participants. However, our data shows that programs that pull people out of their comfort zones create the best learning environments, especially for developing skills such as innovation, communication, and collaboration. That’s good news for leadership development professionals because it means that you can lower the amount you spend on creating a perfect program for every participant, and instead focus on getting more people into authentic experiences.

As an example, the MySkills4Afrika program places hundreds of volunteers directly in the field without in-country program management support. This works because, in advance of the travel, the volunteer connects directly to one of the people they will be working with in-country, instead of having to work through a third party planner. An online process then guides both volunteer and host through their own planning and training process. Engaging in this way enables volunteers to build local connections, replacing the need for in-country (and expensive) program managers. Putting the person in charge of his or her own experience also compels more autonomy and enhances the development experience. It also makes the program much more cost-effective and scalable. 

3: Ensure that goal setting, reflecting, and sharing is a key part of the process.

Recent research confirms Joseph Dewey’s famous quote: “We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.” As Ashanka’s story demonstrates, the long-term value of the program is not just in the experience, but in her reflection, debrief, and sharing of her experience with all stakeholders. Not only does this extend the impact of the program, but it also strengthens relationships with all of the key parties, allowing the program to grow more efficiently in the future.

4: Measure what matters to every stakeholder.

International corporate volunteering programs are largely dependent on good field partners, manager buy-in, and executive level endorsement. As such, it is essential that programs have clear metrics that align with critical objectives of all stakeholders, and progress towards them is measured. The best pictures and experience scores will never be enough to justify expansion. As an example, in MySkills4Afrika, 96 percent of participants developed leadership skills, 100 percent of the host organizations developed their capabilities, and Microsoft realized engagement and loyalty benefits while developing product and process innovations to help it at home and abroad.

A compelling value proposition

By identifying and taking these four steps purposefully, MySkills4Afrika has been able to  increase its impact to all stakeholders, and capture the data and insights to prove it, with only modest additions to its program management budget. While these extra elements require extra rigor and creative use of technology to track, the enhanced value has helped grow the program in just a few years to hundreds of annual participants, making it one of the fastest growing international corporate volunteering programs in the world. More importantly, it has created a compelling value proposition that helps critical expertise get shared with organizations working to make the world a better place.

Ashanka meeting with local Microsoft staff. (Photo by Ashanka Iddya)