State Department’s Global Partnerships Office Hosts Leadership from IBM, Citi, Amazon, CDS, and Others at Forum on International Corporate Volunteerism

Yesterday at the State Department, Drew O’Brien took the stage for his first speech in his new role as Special Representative for Global Partnerships. Special Rep Drew, as he is fondly called by his staff, convened an important event on behalf of the secretary, with strong support from leadership at the IBM Foundation and CDS. The topic: International Corporate Volunteerism, or ICV. Through a series of panels and keynotes, this half-day conference sought to explore and amplify the importance of this growing practice to show other companies how they, too, can use their resources to move the needle on global development in mutually beneficial ways.

In his opening remarks, Special Rep Drew called out a few innovative public-private partnerships, many of which had been the inspiration for the event. Among them were the Diaspora Volunteer Corps, facilitated by the USAID Office of Innovation and Development Alliances, and Partners for a New Beginning, a partnership with the Aspen Institute. Lastly, he championed the Center of Excellence for International Corporate Volunteerism, a collaborative partnership between IBM, USAID, and CDS, which seeks to offer companies like IBM, Pfizer, FedEx, John Deere, PepsiCo and others the opportunity to craft individual public-private partnerships with USAID missions and beneficiaries in countries of interest.

Special Rep Drew also championed those who have already made a significant impact through their ICV programs. Chief among them is IBM, whose Corporate Service Corps (CSC) has fielded more volunteers in the past five years than any other, dedicating $70 million worth of pro bono service to solving complex global challenges. Dow Corning’s commitment to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, one of the most ambitious private-sector commitments to a specific issue, was inspired by one of Dow Corning’s corporate volunteers.

Following his introduction, the first panel took the stage. The panel, moderated by John Glenn, the President of the US Global Leadership Coalition, included  Stan Litow, the President of the IBM Foundation and the Vice President for Corporate Responsibility at IBM, Deirdre White, the President and CEO of CDS, and Jeffrey Blander, the Acting Director for Private Sector Engagement in the State Department’s Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator.

Why is ICV a Good Thing?

John Glenn opened the discussion with a simple question: What do we mean by ICV and why is it a good thing? Stan Litow was the first to respond. First and foremost, “Companies need to understand it from the standpoint of the huge advantage it has for the company,” he said. “The common denominator is that companies will be judged based on the talent of their employees.” According to Stan and others, ICV programs yield a triple benefit: they enhance the skills of their top talent, they deliver significant and impactful benefit on the ground, and they provide companies with insight into new markets.

As he wrapped up his intro remarks, Litow  clearly articulated the biggest challenge in spreading ICV. Many companies believe that “volunteerism” is important, but separate from their core business.  It’s something they encourage ambitious employees to undertake on their free time, but not something that delivers measurable returns. When it comes to ICV, he said, “We need a new name other than ‘volunteerism’ because it’s not separate from the business, it’s part of it.”

IBM’s CSC is celebrating its 5th anniversary this year. Over this time, the program has deployed 2,400 IBM employees as pro bono consultants in 34 countries around the world. According to Litow, the creation of CSC was fueled by the company’s need to create cross-cutting global relationships. “Becoming a globally integrated company required putting together teams of top talent to work together to deliver a significant value to local organizations.” IBM’s teams have worked as far afield as Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania, and Kenya, often in exceptionally rural environments. Through CSC, IBM continues to champion its commitment to lead innovation in Africa. This year, IBM has also begun to embed employees from companies new to the idea of their own ICV teams. Last spring, a team of IBM and Citi executives worked together on a participatory budgeting project in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In the fall, a team of IBMers, joined by four executives from JP Morgan Chase will deploy to Uberlandia, Brazil.

But such scale and impact is difficult to achieve without the right implementing partner. According to Litow, “The Corporate Service Corps would not be effective without an NGO implementer like CDS.” To his point, Deirdre White articulated the most important elements of a successful program: “What’s really critical is that we have the right host organizations, scopes of work that have a real (and achievable) deliverable, and that we match the right set of skills with the problem that needs to be solved.” While this might seem simple at first blush, accommodating as many as 15 professionals in rural parts of the globe, and working with local NGOs to absorb the capacity infusion that an ICV team can provide is hardly wrinkle-free.

When it is done right, however, ICV can create significant change quickly. White called out a recent example of a team of IBMers who provided recommendations to the state government of Nigeria’s Ekiti State on their procurement process. Before the team arrived, the state’s procurement process required 55 separate administrative steps. Through the team’s assessment, the department was able to reduce its procurement process down to 33. While 33 steps may still sound overly complicated, such a rapid automation, reducing the process by 22 steps, will have far reaching implications (and cost savings) for the entire province. “That wouldn’t have happened for many years without an IBM team,” said White.

How Do We Measure Success?

Inevitably, the conversation turned to metrics: “How do you measure success?” asked John Glenn.

According to Litow, it starts with how you design the program. For IBM, it started with leadership development. “Companies are increasingly globally integrated, so you have to be particularly understanding of being culturally literate,” said Litow. “If you are trying to be effective in developing business in a new geography, you can’t possibly be successful without having that level of understanding.”

By working as client-facing consultants in resource-constrained environments, participants develop enhanced teaming, cultural adaptability, and listening skills, among others. Many return from their assignment to a promotion, or a vertical move to somewhere else within the company. Not only that, but interest in the program can attract top talent from elite business schools and computer science programs around the world. When they finish their assignments, participants have developed their own network of top talent within their company, a deeper understanding of strategic business problems, and a greater affinity for the company they work for. These experiences also have far-reaching implications for the future of our world. “Corporate leaders will be a different kind of corporate leader for having had such an experience,” said White.

Subsequent panels included leaders from VEGA Alliance, Cuso International, Seed Global Health Amazon, Citi, the Points of Light Foundation, and USAID. All had terrific ideas and examples of the ways ICV has changed how we think about public-private partnerships in action.

Both Stan Litow and Drew O’Brien had the privilege of closing the conference.

“International experience is critically important to building a great business and in solving the big issues we face in society,” said Litow. “We need better collaboration… a way that large numbers of employees can integrate into their careers opportunities to help governments solve problems on the ground… to deliver real economic benefit, real skills, and collaboration that brings solutions to scale.” Among other options, corporate volunteerism abroad is one of the best ways to help.

Over the past 5 years, as ICV has taken off, the number of companies and employees engaged as corporate volunteers in emerging and frontier markets has grown tremendously, but the numbers are still too small to have far-reaching implications. IBM alone sends 500 volunteers a year, but the next biggest deployer is SAP, who will send 60 this year. “What would happen, if every Fortune 500 company fielded 100 employees a year?” said Litow. “Imagine the impact that would yield, both on your employees and on the world.” Having shown others that it is possible through CSC, Litow issued a call to action: “Now it’s up to all of us to take this to the next level.”

As he closed the event, Special Rep Drew echoed Litow’s call, asking everyone to consider the ways in which they could engage their companies and themselves in advancing social aims in mutually beneficial ways through global pro bono consulting and skills-based volunteering. “We are fortunate to work in a field where there is no such thing as a bad idea,” he said. “But even with all that we have achieved, there is still so much more to do.”


Alicia Bonner Ness

Alicia Bonner Ness (@AliciaBNess) is the editor of the The New Global Citizen, where she seeks to showcase the impact of beneficiaries and implementers alike, empowering all those engaged in furthering social good to learn from one another. She is also the Communications Manager at PYXERA Global.

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