Outside the Comfort Zone: Why Corporate Pro Bono Assignments are a “Win-Win-Win” Proposition

IBM and SAP both send volunteers to work in emerging economies, where their job is to support non-profit organizations on site and solve a range of challenging tasks. This article looks at why pro bono assignments are a “win-win-win” proposition.

“It was an extremely intense time,” recalls pro bono volunteer Nadine Ebert. “You have people around you 14 hours a day and you don’t get much time to yourself. It’s a very bonding experience.”

In April 2014, the 32-year-old SAP manager swapped her office in Palo Alto, California, for a refurbished factory in Porto Alegre, which is home to nós coworking, a Brazilian start-up community. Its aim is to revitalize the former industrial quarter in which it is located­ and create new jobs at the same time. The necessary funds will be channeled principally through a crowdsourcing platform: And it was for this platform that Nadine and two SAP colleagues from Bulgaria and Ireland traveled to Brazil to design an implementation concept.

The Porto Alegre project is a prototypical example of the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that socially responsible enterprises are referring to when they talk about “social impact.” These pro bono projects involve collaboration with educational institutions, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and the private sector to promote sustainable development in target countries. During their assignments, pro bon volunteers utilize precisely those skills that they are used to applying in their regular jobs back home: The difference is that they are working in a cultural and economic environment that is largely alien to them.

“Pro bono volunteering,” as it is known, benefits not only those organizations in developing and emerging economies that receive support, but also the employees who provide it. Not to mention the companies that give their employees leave of absence to take on an international skills-based volunteering assignment.

Bahram Maghsoudi from IBM is a case in point. The 37-year-old business consultant set off for Kenya in 2011, trading his home in Frankfurt for the heart of Nairobi’s start-up scene. Kenya’s Ministry of Science and Technology was searching for proposals on how best to link the country’s universities with start-up businesses. Working with colleagues from Denmark, India, and Japan, Bahram compiled a 100-page white paper on the subject.

“It summarized the findings of a month-long field research program in which we spoke to all the main stakeholders,” he explains. “The Kenyan government used large parts of our study in a government directive that has since entered into force.”

Pro Bono Gaining Momentum

According to a benchmark study published by market experts from Pyxera Global in August 2014, both IBM and SAP are pioneering members of the pro bono movement. The Pyxera study analyzed pro bono programs at 26 multinational corporations, 14 of which have initiated their engagement to the movement within the last four years.

The growing popularity of pro bono is no coincidence: After all, it offers an unparalleled range of benefits for the volunteers, their employers, and the organizations that receive support (see pro bono info box). And companies that operate pro bono schemes know that they are a powerful tool in helping them achieve their HR and CSR objectives.

At many of these companies, the human resources department is one of the key beneficiaries of pro bono engagement. “Finding managers with the ability to adjust to completely new requirements in a very short space of time is one of the main challenges that we face as company,” says Alexandra van der Ploeg, who coordinates SAP’s pro bono program.

This assessment is echoed by auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) in their 2014 CEO survey. According to PwC’s research, 93 percent of CEOs recognize that they need to change their current human capital strategies in order to attract and retain young talent.

Pro Bono Volunteering: Three-Way Benefits


Pressing Need for Action

Two developments in particular are making the need for action ever more urgent.

First, an increasing number of companies are on the look-out for suitable employees to work in emerging markets in Africa and Asia. When asked to comment on the future of the African continent, 74 percent of the managers questioned by PwC said that they expect to see their enterprises’ value generation increase significantly there.

The second development relates to the workforce itself. There is a growing conviction, particularly among those born after 1980, that “making a difference in the world is more important than individual success at a job­.” That was one of the findings of a survey of 1,000 millennials conducted earlier this year by leading U.S. business school Bentley University­.

SAP is responding to these changing conditions and attitudes by exploring new avenues of social engagement. It describes its Social Sabbatical Program, instituted in 2011, as a key milestone.

“This program gives participants a chance to develop their leadership skills in a way that they could never otherwise do by any other method in such a short period of time. Employees who take part in social sabbatical assignments return with extraordinary levels of ­commitment and motivation,” says Alicia Lenze, who is global head of SAP’s CSR organization.

At the same time, she says, they provide SAP with valuable insights into doing business effectively in developing and emerging countries.­ This is insight that SAP can leverage throughout its operations, from market development to product development.

Left to Your Own Devices

Helle Dochedahl saw live evidence of the all-round benefits of skills-based volunteering when she took on a four-week pro bono assignment in India. Helle’s regular job is to lead SAP’s 550-strong presales organization for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. At the end of 2013, she traveled to Bangalore to advise the Parikrma Humanity Foundation, which runs a school for 1,600 children from 69 slums and four orphanages in the Indian megacity. Teaming up with two colleagues form Bulgaria and Ireland, Helle helped the NGO professionalize its donation organization so as to safeguard the school’s ongoing development in the future.

“Working in India brought home to me the importance for our team of relying on our own strengths ­first and foremost,” says Helle, summing up her experiences. “In our home markets,” she explained, “the division of labor has reached a high level. We have sophisticated business plans and powerful IT tools that help us get things done. In Bangalore, we were pretty much left to our own devices. But, working together with employees at the school, we learned how to create a maximum of value with a minimum of resources. To do that, you need to have unconditional trust in your own talent.”

Helle wants to share these insights with as many of her colleagues as possible. Since returning from India, she has been one of the most active ambassadors of the pro bono program. And she’s in prestigious company: SAP CEO Bill McDermott has been using Twitter to encourage people to participate in the program since the beginning of the year. The response has been tremendous, with 350 employees applying for the annual quota of 100 pro bono assignments for 2014.

“That means we’ve already hit the target we’d set ourselves for 2015,” confirms CSR head Alicia Lenze. “To make the most of this momentum, we’re now experimenting with pro bono assignments at national level. We began a pilot in October in Berlin, where SAP employees are helping four social enterprises solve an urgent business problem. If the pilot is successful, I anticipate that we’ll be able to expand our program significantly.”

Seven Tips for Pro Bono Managers

This article was originally published in the print edition of Computerwoche.
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