Part II: How to Implement International Corporate Volunteering at your Organization

A few weeks ago, I published Part I of my corporate responsibility blog series about International Corporate Volunteering (ICV). In it, I outline why I believe that ICV can change the workplace – and the world – if it is planned ethically and intentionally.

Part I makes the case that ICV is needed, wanted and being demanded by the young, socially minded workforce. (See the impressive facts and figures here.) Excitingly, companies and communities alike are responding to this demand through the creation of ICV programs. In fact, some estimate that 40 percent of companies already have an ICV program. And the impacts of these programs can be staggering; companies experience spikes in recruitment and retention while professionals return home as better leaders that are more innovative, engaged, loyal and productive.

But, after successfully running engaged volunteer abroad programs for hundreds of students, professionals and families through Unearth the World, I understand how difficult it is to plan international service in a way that is meaningful, authentic, transparent AND positively impactful for both travelers and the international community. This post – Part II of this CR series – will offer some suggestions for how to ethically implement an international corporate volunteer program within your own organization. It takes forethought, intentional planning and alignment of goals. More below (adapted from this great article by Stanford’s Social Innovation Review).

Step 1: Align corporate, leadership & social responsibility goals/strategy

It is vital that company leaders have a true understanding of why they are engaging in ICV prior to planning a program. Start by asking a series of questions: As a company what motivates you to plan an ICV program? What business and citizenship goals do you need to consider? How do you plan to leverage employee’s skills and how will they harness ICV in a way that makes sense for all parties? A successful ICV program takes into consideration a company’s corporate goals (for example, connecting employees with their international colleagues), leadership priorities (maybe a company wants to develop more productive and versatile managers?) and desired social impact (supporting a certain population like international entrepreneurs or youth and solving a specific problem like poor education or environmental issues). Taking time to plan and align strategies in all three buckets will start a company on the path to establishing an impressive ROI.

Step 2: Work closely with the international community to ensure sustainability

As previously mentioned, ICV programs should be good for businesses and the local community. Striking this delicate balance makes this step important but very difficult. After a company considers the reasons that they are engaging in an ICV program, it is important to engage the international community in the conversation. This starts with choosing to work with a community partner whose needs and objectives align with the goals and skills of the company. ICV programs are only successful if both the company and the community partner benefit. Once a company and community partner have agreed to work together, they must do their best to communicate and co-design the program placing an equal focus on pre, during and post-trip activity. Together both parties should: identify any steps or training that is needed prior to departure, agree upon the scope of the project and expectations once on the ground, and outline a plan for follow-up or continued engagement upon departure.

At each step, it is good for companies to keep the following questions in mind: Is this benefiting the local community? Is this project being developed more for the company’s benefit—if so, what can be altered to make the project more equitable? Approaching the project collaboratively, and with honest expectations set from both parties will help to ensure a successful ICV experience.

Step 3: Set goals, reflect, & share

Talk about it! Encourage employees to set their own learning goals and collaboratively reflect upon their experiences. Research from Harvard Business school shows that learning from direct experience can be more effective and productive if coupled with reflection. If a company is participating in a group ICV trip, make group reflection a part of the evening activities. If it is an individual taking at ICV trip, managers should encourage them to document their experience, for example by journaling, with the intent of discussing their learning and reflections upon return. Finding time and space for volunteers to share their experience abroad with other colleagues can both empower the volunteer, and encourage other employees to participate in an international service experience.

Step 4: Measure what matters to every stakeholder

As companies co-design programs with their community partners, it is important to think about what “success” looks like – and how-to measure it! To create useful metrics, work backwards. Start by considering what outcomes – in regards to both business and social impact – you are looking to produce at home and abroad. Creating clear metrics to measure success will help ensure that upper management continually supports programs and that the service program abroad is actually doing what is desired!

ICV programs are not simple to design. It takes careful thought, intentional design and collaborative action. But it is SO worth it! I should note that this short list is not meant to stand alone – what am I missing? I would love to hear your success stories and challenges. Reach out