Business Insider recently named Uganda, Ghana, and Tanzania among the world’s fastest growing economies. Within the next ten years, many of today’s developing countries are expected to join the ranks of the world’s industrialized nations; at the same time, these countries continue to face a host of critical social concerns including poor education, inadequate access to health care, food insecurity, and lack of clean water. At the recent International Corporate Volunteerism Conference, PepsiCo, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, John Deere, SAP, and other corporations sat alongside representatives of the U.S. State Department, USAID and thought leaders to discuss the future of corporate engagement in the developing world and the role that corporate volunteers can play in helping address some of these problems. Here is what we heard:

1. The definition of leadership is changing quickly—too quickly. Globalization and new technologies are rapidly reducing the efficacy of top-down models of leadership. In recent years, the command-and-control approach to management has become less and less viable. Sue Tsokris, PepsiCo’s vice president, Global Citizenship & Sustainability, echoed this sentiment. “In the past, leadership was often based on criteria as simple as length of tenure, most senior title, or most vocal opinions,” she pointed out. “But as organizations manage new global dynamics, models of leadership are also changing. Successful leaders need skills such as the ability to influence diverse teams, the flexibility to succeed with limited resources, and the adaptability to deal with fast changing work environments.” By placing employees in challenging environments, PepsiCo’s PepsiCorps helps them to develop these types of leadership skills, while addressing complex global problems, such as water scarcity and affordable nutrition.

2. Smart CSR must be clearly tied to your core business. Companies can meaningfully support the development of emerging and frontier markets through social responsibility activities tied to their business history, mission, and values. For example, in his talk, “Solving World Hunger through History,” Nate Clark, vice president of the John Deere Foundation spoke about a group of 1.5 billion people—small, impoverished, “smallholder farm households.” According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, strengthening this population’s productivity can be a driving force in creating global food security. Clark stressed that thoughtfully introducing historically proven technologies to smallholder farmers can boost agricultural production while also promoting rural development. For the John Deere Foundation, such developmental work is an extension of John Deere’s 176-year history and higher purpose—a commitment to those linked to the land.

3. When volunteers do good, they feel good, too. Serving as a pro bono consultant in emerging markets in many cases allows employees who otherwise never see their clients, to take on a people-facing role, where they see the direct impact of using their best skills for social good. Chris Jarvis of Realized Worth pointed out that both international and domestic volunteer programs can be designed to allow people to fall in love with them. Drawing from Adam Grant’s recent book, Give and Take, Jarvis pointed to the proximity factor—an emotional connection that sparks a greater affinity towards one’s company. The proximity factor is comprised of two elements, task significance and contact with the beneficiary. When a person understands how his or her actions will make a difference and to whom, he or she invests more in the activity and ultimately, performs better. He pointed to the three evolutionary stages of volunteering—the tourist, the traveler, and the guide. As volunteers travel through this spectrum, the “feel good, do good effect” occurs. Employees develop an emotional bond with their company that increases business performance, and they become more deeply invested in communities.

4. Social impact is hard, but getting easier. Due to the short-term nature of international corporate volunteer (ICV) programs, social impact can be difficult to measure, but as program longevity grows, this burden eases. As a program such as Pfizer’s Global Health Fellows enters its tenth year, evidence of capacity building is surfacing. Farron Levy, president of True Impact, spoke about this with Pfizer and its partner, Accordia Global Health Foundation, who supports the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) of Makerere University in Uganda. Since 2003, 15 Global Health Fellows have been placed at the IDI, and they have provided an array of assistance in developing strategic business and maintenance plans, creating training programs for nurses, and introducing new technology skills for people in laboratories. Since IDI’s inception in 2003, the organization has grown into a recognized regional leader with revenues of $18 million (2010-11), and has provided training to nearly 12,000 healthcare providers from 28 African countries and care to more than 70,000 patients. This long-term partnership demonstrates how corporate volunteers can strengthen the sustainability of institutions when they are strategically placed.  

5. Corporations with ICV programs are seeing the benefits. CDC Development Solutions’ senior advisor, Stephen Hurley, reported on the state of ICV, sharing findings from the 2013 ICV Benchmarking Survey, a survey of two dozen companies with ICV programs. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed were pleased or extremely pleased with their programs. Leadership potential was cited as the top benefit and the most important criteria in volunteer selection. Nearly unanimously, corporations are satisfied with these programs for their business returns and most CSR departments are looking to improve the welfare of the residents in the communities where their projects operate. So we have to ask: Why aren’t more companies doing ICV?

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