The Role of the Corporation in Citizen Diplomacy

It was fifty years ago that President Kennedy famously launched the Peace Corps, bringing international volunteerism to its true prominence in this country. Today, a diverse set of international volunteer efforts are supported by federal, state and local governments and through partnerships with NGOs. These efforts have been particularly effective at engaging two segments of our population: students or recent graduates; and retirees or those pursuing second careers.

But the segment that holds perhaps the greatest promise for global development has – for the most part – been underserved. We’re referring to mid-career employees at corporations: particularly large, globally-integrated enterprises. These corporate employees have what is most required for a successful international service engagement: cutting edge skills, deep expertise and relevant strategic knowhow.

Why has this resource largely gone untapped? Because a clear connection to business strategy and return on investment has been made in only a few cases.

There exists a triple benefit from corporate-sponsored international volunteerism. Local communities receive premier business and consulting services. Employees enrich their skill sets by working in international markets and leadership experience from working with diverse teams of colleagues and local partners. And corporations gain experienced leaders, insights into new markets, and brand and reputation enhancement that can ultimately create new global business opportunities.

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) was developed with those benefits in mind. Often referred to as a “corporate peace corps,” CSC provides IBM employees with unique opportunities to develop and explore their roles as global citizens. Through one month deployments, IBM’s top talent works in teams of roughly 12 to provide in-depth business and IT consulting support to local entrepreneurs and small businesses, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and governmental agencies. Already in its third year, Corporate Service Corps has deployed 700 IBM employees from 47 countries on 70 teams to 14 countries including China, Nigeria, Romania, Poland and Vietnam. The result is a leadership development program that has made strides in answering the economic, social and environmental sustainability challenges faced by many emerging markets.

We’re pleased to see that other organizations are adopting similar programs. In fact, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced a partnership with IBM to accelerate international volunteerism by leveraging the Corporate Service Corps model. USAID and IBM are creating an Alliance for International Corporate Volunteerism Program to help smaller companies and organizations eager to implement their own corporate peace corps, but lacking the resources and scale to do so.

As we look to help expand international service opportunities, there are several best practices to share based on IBM’s experience.

  • In the case of executives, keep the duration of the projects relatively short. This allows for better access to a company’s top talent because rather than interrupting a career, you are asking someone to make service an integral part of it.
  • Continue the relationship. While the duration of an individual’s participation may be short, your involvement with the region should be long-term and sustainable. It is not a vendor relationship; it is a partnership.
  • Identify the right projects. The most successful development efforts take time and effort to scope out and plan. Partner with NGOs early and often to find the best local opportunities for growth and impact.
  • Carefully mix and match skills when forming a team of service participants. This allows them to deliver results quickly and build capacity on the local level.
  • Take advantage of technology. Technology can be a powerful tool to help train and prepare service participants. Technology like social networking can also help build a community of service participants and allow them to share their experiences.

The world has changed significantly over the last 50 years. Corporate-sponsored international volunteerism is now building upon the government’s original architecture of the Peace Corps. The same conditions and capabilities that have made the world “flat”, allowing its systems to become smarter, are also opening up new paths for citizen diplomacy. Those seeking out international volunteer service opportunities are no longer limited to government guidance and other official avenues into long-term engagements.

In an interconnected world, citizens have the choice of participating more directly in service through short-term assignments that will not disrupt their careers but enrich them. And it is these mid-career volunteers who possess the skills to make such assignments successful. Forward-thinking corporations with a clear understanding of the benefits of international volunteer programs can empower meaningful citizen diplomacy, contributing to sustainable development practices and building partnerships in a globalized world.