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Socially Responsible Business

Fostering Adaptability and Change Through ICV

Six tips for unlocking “resilient dynamism” with international corporate volunteer programs.

“Resilient dynamism”—confronting adaptive challenges and turning them into transformational change—was the theme of this year’s World Economic Forum. We believe one way to encourage this concept within emerging economies, inside leading businesses, and among young professionals is through well-designed international corporate volunteerism (ICV) programs. In fact, a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review blog post looks at how ICV programs in developing countries are building leadership skills among young employees.

Understandably, such programs are growing in popularity at leading companies. CDC Development Solutions (CDS), a nonprofit that works with companies to develop ICV programs, recently estimated that 22 major US companies planned to send a total of 2,183 employee volunteers abroad in 2012—up from only six firms that sent 280 workers abroad in 2006.

Since 2006, Ernst & Young and Endeavor have collaborated on the Americas Corporate Responsibility (CR) Fellows program, which sends some of Ernst & Young’s top-performing, mid-career professionals abroad. The CR Fellows assist high-impact entrepreneurs in Latin America for seven weeks, free of charge.

The program has benefitted both entrepreneurs and CR Fellows and has taught us a few lessons about how to design a successful ICV program:

Focus money and time on the issues you understand. At Ernst & Young and many other companies, corporate responsibility efforts are most effective when they leverage the strengths of the core business. For us, entrepreneurship is a natural fit, since our Strategic Growth Markets (SGM) practice has helped many of the world’s most dynamic and ambitious companies grow into market leaders for more than 30 years. The multidisciplinary SGM team provides perspective and advice, delivering assurance, tax, transactions, and advisory services to thousands of high-growth companies spanning all industries. Similarly, IBM’s Corporate Service Corps program sends groups of employees to emerging markets for four-week, community-based assignments focused on technology issues.

Look for surprising connections, and find the right partner. Some companies design their ICV programs in conjunction with nonprofits that really understand issues in the emerging markets where they send volunteers. Certainly, collaboration has been important to the success of the CR Fellows program. Endeavor’s rigorous selection process identifies companies that have the potential to grow significantly, generate jobs, and contribute to the local economy; it has connections with promising entrepreneurs who are most likely to benefit from the business consulting services of the firm. The support a company receives as an Endeavor entrepreneur contributes to its success: a 59 percent average rate of growth in the first two years. In return, nonprofits such as Endeavor value the highly skilled volunteers from large companies.

Look for the big change. Don’t be timid about envisioning assignments. Endeavor ensures that every project assigned to a CR Fellow will be game-changing for a high-impact entrepreneur who is not yet at the stage where they are able to access or afford the services of a Big Four organization. On the Ernst & Young side, acceptance into the CR Fellows program is extremely competitive and open only to top performers at the manager or senior manager level. We match CR Fellows with projects that will make the most of their skills—and push those skills to a new level.

Create a context in which resilient dynamism can thrive. While many leading companies send their staff in groups, Ernst & Young sends its CR Fellows as individuals and asks them to become part of the entrepreneur’s team. As a result, the CR Fellows are immersed in a new culture, asked to work in a new language, truly challenged to understand an emerging economy, and expected to scope and implement their work independently. CR Fellows enter the experience without the familiarity and built-in support system of working as part of an existing Ernst & Young team. CR Fellows return home with a new confidence in their abilities.

Enter places that show promise. If both the business and community are going to get the most out of an ICV program, it is important to choose markets that are receptive to change and where the business is prepared to make a long-term commitment. Ernst & Young, for example, has recently included Brazil and Mexico among the countries where we send CR Fellows, because they are very important markets for our firms. It is valuable to make connections with promising entrepreneurs and provide employees with experience working in those markets. Similarly, one of the purposes of Dow Corning’s Citizen Service Corps program is to create a “living laboratory” that allows the company to explore potential business opportunities in emerging markets.

Expect the change to be permanent. The best programs are transformative for participants and for the people, organizations, and economies they help. The various process improvements that CR Fellows recommend, for example, have helped Endeavor entrepreneurs’ progress to the point that some have become Ernst & Young clients (although it is important to note that there is no quid pro quo attached to participation in the CR Fellows program). The program is also transformative for the CR Fellows. Managing within an emerging market, they develop a more global mindset, and return home with both a more expansive idea of the world and a network of connections in that country. They are stretched both personally and professionally, and the resulting growth can move an already dynamic career into high gear.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, resilient dynamism—a flexible and energetic approach to solving problems everywhere—is an increasingly valuable quality for people and organizations. ICV programs can help to encourage adaptability in the people who volunteer and the companies they work for, and at the same time help emerging economies develop new approaches to growth.

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