The globalization of business goes hand in hand with global mobility. Indeed, global mobility of employees is necessary to expand a company abroad, to establish partnerships with foreign companies, and generally, to sustain the international status of a company. As such, there are many different goals international assignments might aim to fulfill, which is why there are also several types of international assignments used by companies. Long-term assignments, short-term assignment, developmental assignments, extended business travels and commuting assignments are examples of the most commonly used mobility types, which I have also discussed several times in my earlier blog posts. However, what I have not yet written about, and what are not usually found listed in any global mobility industry surveys, are international volunteering assignments.
Nowadays volunteering is a well-established practice among school and university graduates, who want to travel the world, while at the same time contributing something good to society. In essence, I think the general view of volunteering is that of something you do either before diving into your professional career, or after the career has already ended. In other words, one can volunteer when one is not working. However, what about volunteering experiences for the employed population? Why would any company pay for their employees to volunteer abroad?
Sharing their best practice of launching an international volunteer program, Eli Lilly & Company, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, finds that apart from the mission to do good, this initiative helps to develop employees’ cultural intelligence. Lilly’s program entails sending around 200 employees yearly for two weeks to a country in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe or Latin America. Apart from highlighting Lilly’s example, a recent Forbes article that reviews the results of a Forbes Insight report, found that volunteerism for companies is also about corporate philanthropy and corporate citizenship. Moreover, 64% of respondents of the Forbes report indicated that volunteer programs are also a good way for motivating employees. As such, sending employees abroad for short-term volunteering seems to be a good idea for companies, both internally and externally.
Speaking about the external impact, what could be a better message for customers, prospective employees and business partners than showing that a company cares about its people and nature? After all, the majority of companies’ mission, vision and values statements usually relate to some higher-order goals of contributing to society and mankind at large. Volunteering is a perfect way of ‘walking the talk’.
As for the internal influence, I see that volunteer programs can benefit companies in many different ways. First of all, they can develop cross-cultural competencies of employees. Being exposed to a very different culture from one’s own is one of the best ways for creating awareness about oneself, promoting empathy towards other people and developing flexibility in terms of adjustment.
Secondly, I would agree with the results of the Forbes report that finds volunteer assignments being motivating for employees. Apart from the simple pleasures of travel and adventure, employees also get a chance to ‘zoom out’ of their everyday work, and do something different and, most importantly, very meaningful (in a different way from their jobs) in-between. Of course, being a production plant manager, for example, may be a very important and meaningful job in itself, but volunteering in a remote Indian place to teach locals English is a different type of meaningfulness.
Finally, being part of a company that cares about people, and actually seeing and participating in it, is something that works towards engagement as well, I believe. This notion of engagement and retention is reflected well in the words of one of Lilly’s employees, cited in the Forbes article: “It (volunteering) makes me want to work that much harder to make my company succeed, because I know that it cares about people”.