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Corporate America Embracing Their Version of the Peace Corps

May 24, 2011

When Ronda Grosse submitted her application to be a part of a team of Dow Corning Corp. volunteers in Bangalore, India, she expected it to be a new experience. What she couldn’t predict was that just getting to work would be an adventure in itself.

Each morning during her 10-minute walk as a member of Dow Corning’s Citizen Service Corps, Grosse found herself dodging cars and buses and weaving through a sea of people, cows and goats, navigating what she called “an interestingly chaotic” commute before she reached her destination.

Grosse, science and technology group manager for Midland, Michigan-based silicon products maker Dow Corning, is among a growing number of corporate employees who are discovering that a stint overseas can be an enriching personal experience for many reasons. Not only do they come to appreciate the creature comforts of home, but also the trip helps them become a better leader with a deeper understanding of the business and the knowledge to manage a more diverse, global workforce.

The overseas corporate volunteer projects are proving to benefit both the employer and employee. Acting as a sort of corporate Peace Corps, volunteers aid nongovernmental organizations with complex projects, while their companies simultaneously gain insights into emerging markets and the employees build leadership skills that might otherwise take years to develop.

With the help of CDC Development Solutions, companies are sending groups of highly skilled employees overseas on a variety of volunteer projects. In the two decades since its founding, CDC Development Solutions, which originally was known as Citizens Democracy Corps and then Citizens Development Corps, has morphed into an economic development organization using corporate volunteers and focusing on emerging markets, says director of business development Kate Ahern.

Interest in overseas corporate volunteerism is growing, says spokeswoman Katie Levey. Last month, the Washington, D.C.-based not-for-profit organization released a survey of 20 companies—a combination of CDC Development Solutions clients and other companies known for their work in the area of corporate volunteerism. This year, companies plan to send nearly 2,000 employees into 58 countries, a big jump since 2006, when 280 employees traveled to four countries.

For four weeks, Grosse worked with nongovernmental organization Ashoka, which is focused on an initiative in India called Housing for All. Ashoka’s objective is to provide housing for families with insufficient income, many of whom live in slum areas, as well as to encourage the government to create sustainable and affordable homes on a large scale.

The Dow Corning team’s goal was to write a standard to help local officials define affordable housing, specify limits on the size and type of dwelling that can be built, and regulate all the players involved in its construction.

Grosse says the experience was helpful to her work at Dow Corning, where she develops new and affordable products and technologies.

“This service project gave me ample insight into that part of my job,” she says. Personally, she adds, it changed the way she sees the world.

Grosse blogged during her time as a corporate volunteer in India. Here is the link.

Typically, multinational corporations have offered overseas volunteer assignments to only a small number of executives. In 2007, IBM Corp. set out to offer a similar opportunity to a larger pool of its high-performing employees.

IBM was the first corporation to retain CDC Development Solutions to create an international volunteer program. Since then, other companies, including Dow Corning, Deloitte, FedEx Corp., Novartis and Pfizer Inc. have established programs with the help of CDC Development Solutions, branding the program as their own. IBM has named its program Corporate Service Corps; Dow Corning, Citizen Service Corps; and Pfizer, the Global Health Teams.

Launched in 2008, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps program assigns high-performing employees to community service assignments around the world. Each year, hundreds of employees apply to work for IBM’s partners—often nongovernmental organizations—in countries such as Egypt, Ghana, Romania, Tanzania and Vietnam.

“The value of the work of participating employees is estimated at $25 million” since the program’s inception three years ago, says Michael Bazigos, a strategy and change executive for IBM. “Teams consist of employees from over 50 different countries who have specific technical and consulting expertise. They take on issues that include local economic development, entrepreneurship, transportation, education, government services, health care and disaster recovery.”

To date, 1,000 IBM employees have participated in 100 projects in nearly 20 countries, Bazigos says.

There are three primary goals of IBM’s program, he says. First, help address economic and civic challenges in places that would benefit most from IBM’s expertise; second, help employees feel more fulfilled within the company; and third, help employees—and thus the company—gain insights into growth markets they might not otherwise understand.

With IBM’s program as its model, Pfizer began working with CDC Development Solutions last year to create its Global Health Teams, an expansion of a longer-term volunteer program already in place. The Global Health Teams last year sent 12 employees throughout Latin America to work in teams in Peru for two weeks. This year Pfizer is expanding the program, adding additional teams and locations.

Competition to secure a spot on the teams is fierce, according to Caroline Roan, who oversees worldwide corporate responsibility at Pfizer. The pharmaceuticals company has one of the more exhaustive application processes: interested employees must write essays, provide references and submit their résumés. Their qualifications are reviewed internally and by the nongovernmental organizations Pfizer works with.

Because time is limited—most projects run between two and six weeks—it is imperative that employees with the right skill sets be chosen. The process, Roan says, is similar to applying for a job.

Once employees are chosen, the training is rigorous. Most companies spend about eight weeks preparing them, and train them on everything from the history of the country they will be serving to lessons in corporate responsibility.

In addition to training at their home offices, Pfizer participants attend a weeklong orientation at the company’s New York headquarters. That orientation includes direct training with the nongovernmental organizations, distribution of materials and equipment and the opportunity to meet with alumni of the program.

The intensive training is in preparation for an intense work experience. Ten- and 12-hour days are common. The work can be exhausting, especially when coupled with the challenges of living in a less-developed country.

“We were in Bangalore staying in a guest house, which was similar to a youth hostel,” Grosse says. “It was an immersion program, so we got used to some of the same constraints that people who live in Bangalore are used to, like having no hot water or water pressure at times or periods where the electricity wasn’t working.”

According to Edward Colbert, director of talent management at Dow Corning, Grosse is not alone in saying that she returned from her trip a changed person. The program, he says, is the company’s most effective leadership classroom.

“These employees return as different people, deeper thinking people, people that have stretched their brains and hearts, opened their eyes and figured out solutions to problems that they likely had never thought of before,” Colbert says. A “boss can’t easily provide like opportunities at the corporate headquarters.”

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