Corporate volunteering (from The Economist print edition Oct 30th 2010)

Corporate volunteering

Big-hearted Blue

IBM reinvents voluntary work

Oct 28th 2010 | NEW YORK

“IT WAS like going back to graduate-student days. We all had nicknames and were hanging out together,” says Guruduth Banavar, a senior executive at IBM. He recently spent time volunteering in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as part of a six-person team put together by the IBM Corporate Service Corps, working pro bono with the city government to help develop new strategies in areas ranging from public transport and water supply to food safety and innovation.

Launched in 2007 as a “corporate version of the Peace corps”, the programme is now being scaled up to 500 IBMers a year. Although many companies encourage their employees to do voluntary work, and some (such as Pfizer, a drugs firm) send them overseas to work with local community organisations, the IBM Corps reinvents the idea in several important ways, not least in its scale and its overt goal of doing well by doing good.

The idea was a result of trying to implement the vision of Sam Palmisano, IBM’s chief executive, to turn the company into a “globally integrated enterprise”. Needing to develop leaders capable of operating anywhere in the world, the firm decided to use volunteering as a form of training for high-flyers. There are benefits, says Stanley Litow, who has overseen the corps from its conception: communities benefit from an influx of talented problem-solvers, the company’s brand is polished and it gets a squadron of leaders with new skills. “And it’s a lot cheaper than a traditional international assignment,” says Mr Litow.

At first those selected for the deliberately multiethnic teams were rising stars a few rungs below the top, but the programme has now been extended to executives such as Mr Banavar, a former head of IBM’s research in India who is now chief technology officer for the firm’s global public-sector business. “It was the best way to train myself for the new job,” he says. The executive teams give advice on how to become “smarter cities” to local governments—which could become buyers of IBM’s services, though the firm insists it offers help with no strings attached.

Indeed, although it is easy to imagine the benefits to IBMers, the biggest challenge facing Mr Litow has been to ensure that the corps is actually benefiting those it claims to help, especially as the missions last only four weeks for regular staff and three weeks for the executives. That could easily be just the right amount of time to make things worse rather than better. So IBM works with non-governmental organisations such as CDS, which specialises in overseas volunteering, to identify projects and to prepare staff before they arrive.

Other firms are now following IBM’s lead. Novartis, a drugs company, has sent volunteers to Tanzania and the Philippines. Dow Corning has sent them to Bangalore. FedEx is sending half a dozen people on IBM projects to see if the model works for them.

An unexpected benefit for IBM is that the corps has been hugely popular inside the firm: more than 10,000 IBMers have applied so far. Those who have taken part show a greater commitment to continuing their career with the company, says Mr Litow. There are even some satisfied customers. Piotr Uszok, the mayor of Katowice, Poland, says he is delighted with the smarter-city advice he received this year and hopes that IBM will take part in the (happily) competitive tendering for projects that are the fruit of this volunteering.

The Economist 30/10/2010


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