Which approach do you think is more effective for learning a language quickly: hours of classroom grammar drills or a concentrated period of immersion in the country where it's the native lexicon?
With all due respect to academics, most of us would guess the real-world experience, and increasingly, the same can be said about employee engagement initiatives.
No matter their original philanthropic or sustainability purpose, pro bono work experiences at home and abroad or programs such as social sabbaticals that combine business experts with non-profits in emerging markets are becoming valuable tools for professional development and workforce retention. TD Bank's quest to embed environmental awareness across its entire U.S. banking organization is one vivid example, and this theme was sounded loudly and often by a wide array of corporate sustainability and human resources executives speaking during the Commit!Forum conference this week in New York.
At high-tech giant IBM, for example, certain volunteer work -- including participation in its five-year-old Corporate Service Corps program and the Smarter Cities Challenge -- counts toward employees' 40-hour annual requirement for continuing education and career development.
"Time and again, when we evaluate these programs with participants, they say they are the most successful educational or leadership program that they've experienced," said Stanley Litow, IBM's vice president of corporate citizenship and corporate affairs, and president of the IBM International Foundation.
Specifically addressing the value of traditional employee development programs versus these opportunities for real-world engagement, Litow said, "You have more control over the specific skills being developed. Imagine the premium you would place on having 300 or so people who can offer the experience you need on the ground. [Participants] are getting access to things that they would never get if our company were merely involved with checkbook philanthropy."
SAP's two-year-old sabbatical program -- which saw double the number of participants during its latest round of projects in places such as Brazil and South Africa compared with the first year -- likewise is becoming an integral part of the growth path for future leaders, said Saswato Das, head of thought leadership content for SAP Global Communications. "The main thing that we saw that our employees wanted was to do something different but something meaningful for their education," he said.
Treat sustainability initiatives as a strategic investment
This trend dovetails closely with another shift in corporate philanthropy: a rise in "non-cash giving" in the form of donations of products, services or employee time. Many of the 200 or so companies that are part of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy -- representing $7 trillion in annual revenue -- now offer paid-release time options or an outside company volunteer program, said Daryl Brewster, the organization's CEO.
"Companies are becoming more focused on specific issues and challenges where they could have an impact, much like they would focus on a business investment," he said.
Like IBM and SAP, philanthropy is central to the business mission at Mosaic, a major U.S. producer of potash and phosphate fertilizer. One percent of the company's profits are designated for community development initiatives. One example is the Mosaic Villages program that touches small, local farmers in Guatemala, India, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.
The company's agronomists have gained valuable insights into agricultural practices and research into yield trends that weren't previously available to them before the program started in 2008, simply because they tended to work most directly with much larger farming operations, said Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, manager of the Mosaic Company Foundation. Yields for the farms that have been touched by the Mosaic Villages program have increased by at least threefold.
"They are seeing a completely different side of farming practices," she said.
What advice would these companies give to others seeking to rethink the link between sustainability investments and broader professional development programs? Here are several themes that emerged during Commit!Forum panel discussions.
1. Vet participants closely. While it is good to push promising employees out of their comfort zone, make sure that individuals chosen for projects -- especially those that will send them to emerging markets -- can be flexible enough to accept and adjust to other cultures, said Charlene Denizard, director of community engagement and corporate volunteering for PepsiCo. "Otherwise, you can end up with an unhappy relationship," she said. SAP actually arranges for sabbatical participants to be housed together, so there is additional opportunity for debriefings and brainstorming sessions after hours.
2. Pick markets that matter to the business. When IBM had an opportunity to help develop a healthcare strategy for Nigeria, it jumped at the chance. Later, the visibility it earned by being part of that project helped it win its first large-scale services project in the country, said Doris Gonzalez, director of corporate citizenship in the Americas for IBM. Similarly, a project in Nairobi blossomed into a transportation project for the company's Smarter Planet initiative. "We're not bringing a sales team, but if opportunities open up, this is OK," she said.
3. Be methodical about sharing the learnings. IBM, SAP and PepsiCo have all developed specific frameworks that ensure a diverse set of skills -- ranging from legal expertise, consulting know-how, communications skills and research and development experience -- are represented on volunteer projects. Participants work together to refine their objectives beforehand, and likewise must commit to a debriefing period after they return.
4. Don't limit the opportunities to a chosen few. While many social sabbatical programs have an explicit purpose for employees who might be on the leadership track, innovative companies are thinking far more broadly. After several successful "pro social" pilots -- such as its well-known campaign to encourage voter registration -- MTV is thinking about how to become far more methodical about offering employees opportunities to work on a pro bono basis with non-profit groups. That's in large part because almost 50 percent of its workforce is millennials who expect this behavior, not to mention the company's traditional audience, said Jason Rzepka, senior vice president of public affairs for MTV. "It's not just who we're going to give money to or so we can put nice things in an annual report; we want to use MTV superpowers for good," he said.
MTV looked to "volunteer matching" organization Catchafire for its first formal test of this idea. Under that pilot, it helped rethink the messaging and social media strategy for Center for Employment Opportunities, an organization that provides placement service for people who have just been released from jail or prison. All MTV employees involved with the project -- including those at the executive vice president level -- found it to be personally fulfilling, Rzepka said, while 80 percent would encourage a colleague to participate in similar efforts.
Catchafire founder and CEO Rachel Chong offers two additional pieces of advice for companies considering how to embed sustainability objectives or social agendas more explicitly into employee engagement and career development routes. First, your company needs buy-in from the CEO suite before it will be really ready to do this, especially if the program will reach beyond a discrete departmental-level effort. And second, there need to be clearly defined goals for both sides.
"The exchange is not monetary, so it's not always obvious what's being exchanged," Chong said. "Both sides need to be receiving something and you should make these things clearly known upfront."
Chain image by Brian Smithson via Flickr