Voluntourism has been getting a bad name lately. “Unsatisfying as it may be, we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer,” Jacob Kushner wrote recently in The New York Times. On Medium, Katia Savchuck wrote about traveling abroad with Habitat for Humanity and asked, “Was I doing good or just having fun?” Sending volunteers abroad to do things that local people can do for themselves doesn’t make much sense.
By contrast, global pro bono is booming. Corporations that adopt global pro bono programs send executives with skills in finance, marketing, health care, IT or operations to work at a nonprofit or a business in a poor country. Pyxera Global, a Washington DC-based nonprofit that has been operating international corporate volunteer programs since 2008, has rebranded that work as global pro bono. “Don’t do something that a teenager can do,” says Laura Asiala, vice president of client relations and public affairs at Pyxera. “That’s not leveraging the kind of expertise that you have as a company.”
Global pro bono programs have been shown to deliver benefits to the corporations that run them and to the executives who get sent on overseas missions. In that regard, they strike me as a smart form of corporate philanthropy. But do they do much good for clients in the development world or, more importantly, for the poor? That’s harder to know because they haven’t been subject to rigorous evaluation, as best as I can tell.
Until now, I haven’t written about corporate philanthropy on this blog because I’m not sure it should exist at all. Publicly-held companies don’t have their own money to give away; management is donating funds that belong to shareholders. This means that corporate philanthropy should serve a compelling business interest. Many old-style corporate giving programs — buying tables at charity dinners, spreading a bunch of small cash donations around or, worst of all, giving to a CEO’s pet charity — don’t qualify as good use of shareholder funds. Why not return that money to the shareholders, or let them decide where to give it, as Berkshire Hathaway did for a while?
In contrast to old-style giving, global pro bono is strategic. IBM, a pioneer in the field, says its Corporate Service Corps helps engage and retain high-performing executives. Stan Litow, an IBM exec, told Harvard Business Review: “If participation in these programs increases our retention rate, recruits top talent, and builds skills in our workforce, then it’s addressing the critical issue of competitiveness.” Ernst & Young, which has been running EY Vantage, its global pro bono program, since 2005. is so happy with the results that it increased the number of placements by 50 percent this year and added a domestic sabbatical program. A 2015 survey of the impact of corporate pro bono by Emerging World found that 99 percent of corporate executives who participated would recommend the program to a colleague. Emerging World says it helps companies to train executives to succeed “in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.”
It’s no wonder that the business of global pro bono is growing. In its latest annual survey, Pyxera identified 26 companies that had sent over 8,000 employees to 80 countries since 2008; more than half launched their programs since 2010. Numerous other companies and nonprofits help corporations develop global pro bono programs. They include Endeavor, a fast-growing nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs around the world, in part through mentorship; the Taproot Foundation, which “connects nonprofits and social change organizations with passionate, skilled volunteers;” Moving Worlds, which runs what it calls “experteering” programs for companies and individuals; Global Vision International (GVI), which began running internships and study abroad projects and now works with companies; and VSO International, which has a “knowledge exchange” program for businesses. USAID established an Alliance for International Corporate Volunteerism in 2010.
There’s little doubt that global pro bono programs are good for corporates and their executives. The programs develop leadership skills, reward top employees and build brands in emerging markets. Recently, I spoke with Jason Jackson, a Virginia-based strategy and management consultant with Ernst & Young who regularly advises US government agencies. He spent six weeks in Bogota, Columbia, as part of the EY Vantage Program, helping an entrepreneur better organize the operations of a fast-growing digital signage company. Overseas travel was “always on my radar,” he told me. “One reason why I came to EY is that it was more global than others in the Big Four.” Surveys of corporate volunteers find similar, high levels of satisfactions. And yes, some global pro bono programs serve businesses as well as nonprofits.
What’s harder to find is evidence that the programs succeed in fighting poverty or improving health in poor countries. An 2015 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review headlined Optimizing International Corporate Volunteer Programs reports that 100 percent of the organizations aided by a Microsoft program called MySkills4Afrika say they “developed their capabilities,” which would be impressive — 100 percent! — were it not for the fact that the article was written by the program’s manager. The only independent evaluation of a global pro bono program that I could find was done by Boston University ‘s Center for Global Health and Development for Pfizer, which operates a program called Global Health Fellows. Pfizer’s partners in the global south gave the program excellent reviews but with a few reservations. One partner wrote:
Our preference would be to have fellows available for longer assignments, e.g., 6-12 months, rather than 0-6 months. The reason is that it takes about 2-3 months for fellows to get settled into a new city and country, to learn about the organization, and to fully understand the scope of their assignment and contribute their own creativity and skill to its completion. By the time they are ready to leave, they are most effective!”
Another wrote, not surprisingly, that “sometimes the scope of work may not be achievable within the allocated time frame.” Pfizer deserves credit for seeking an independent review and publishing the results. (It’s possible I missed other independent evaluations; if so, please add them in the comments or let me know.)
Looming over these programs is the question of what even a skilled volunteer can accomplish in six months, six weeks, or less. In 2014, Credit Suisse’s Global Citizens program sent volunteers to 15 countries for “one-week training and education assignments” during which “they performed a broad range of tasks from developing a marketing strategy and communications materials to strengthening HR or financial management systems.” Really? In one week?
All of these global pro bono programs, I’m sure, are well-intentioned. Some of them, I’m equally sure, make a meaningful difference. And some surely do not. The trouble is, without independent evaluations, feedback from clients and transparency about results, global pro bono practices won’t do nearly as much good as they could.