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.