Matt Ringelheim knew nothing about knitting, let alone what goes into producing the yarn used to create cozy scarves, sweaters, and baby booties. But the Boston consultant spent two months in the fall of 2011 putting his data analysis skills to work at Araucania Yarns near Santiago, Chile, at no cost to the yarn company.
Ringelheim, a native of Wellesley who is based in Amsterdam, was participating in a corporate volunteer program run by the accounting and consulting firm Ernst & Young , which paid his salary during his time in Chile.
In an increasingly global economy, more companies are starting to send employees around the world to do pro bono consulting in developing countries. This “corporate Peace Corps,” as the movement is sometimes called, helps develop workers’ leadership skills while introducing a company’s services to new markets.
For Ringelheim, who normally works with Fortune 100 corporations, helping a small Chilean yarn-dyeing company digitize and ramp up its operations was not only a refreshing change, it gave him a new perspective on his day job.
“You can see definite overlap between the entrepreneur that is trying to start their business and the big companies that I was working with,” he said. “It comes together in making you a much more relevant adviser to your clients.”
In all, 39 companies worldwide have started some form of corporate service program, according to Pyxera Global, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that connects companies with international pro bono projects that fit their corporate objectives. Accenture workers helped connect retailers selling food and personal hygiene products with saleswomen in rural Bangladesh; Symantec Corp. employees created a marketing strategy for a Peruvian nonprofit that works with victims of domestic violence; in August, employees from IBM and Dow Chemical Co. will team up to improve water quality and sanitation in Ethiopia.
By the end of the year, more than 9,000 employees will have participated in one of these projects in 88 countries, according to Pyxera data from 26 of the 39 companies — up from just a few hundred employees in five countries eight years ago.
“It offers them a different way into an emerging market,” said a Pyxera spokeswoman, Katie Levey. “It’s really seen as an act of good will for a company to come in and offer their expertise at no cost.”
In the past, companies assigned executives to overseas assignments for several years to develop global leadership skills, said Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. But lately they have been using shorter, more cost-effective service stints to accomplish the same thing.
At the same time, the volunteer programs serve to form valuable partnerships with foreign agencies, tap into innovative ideas from other cultures, fulfill employees’ desire to do good, and forge a positive international reputation for the sponsoring company.
“It’s building relationships across the world,” Kanter said. “This is diversity writ large.”
At IBM, 2,500 of the company’s 431,000 worldwide employees have traveled to 37countries — many to Africa, where IBM wants to expand — as part of its pioneering corporate service corps. In Nigeria, where an IBM team helped design a welfare program for mothers and children, one of the agencies it assisted later hired IBM to provide technology and analysis.
“The folks that go into these places are not there in a sales capacity whatsoever, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that our pro bono clients become more familiar with IBM, and it certainly can lead to business,” said spokesman Ari Fishkind. “It’s a way to introduce ourselves, and it helps us become more familiar with the culture and landscape.”
The projects also promote employee productivity and loyalty, according to an IBM survey, with more than 90 percent of IBM participants saying the experience helped them perform their regular jobs and 80 percent saying it significantly increased the likelihood they would finish their careers at IBM.
‘The folks that go into these places are not there in a sales capacity whatsoever, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that our pro bono clients become more familiar with IBM.’
Sharon Dinneen, a project manager from Dunstable who works out of IBM’s Cambridge office, spent a month in Turkey last year working for the Izmir Institute of Technology. Dinneen and five other IBM team members from around the world with a variety of legal and technical skills assisted the school in planning a technology incubator for startups.
Dinneen knew little about the subject, but was able to use her project management skills to lay out the framework for creating an incubator.
“It was great to hit the refresh button and change your perspective in the way you look at everything when you come back,” said Dinneen, who also got to take in local culture on the weekends, visiting the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus and participating in a student career day. “It really made me feel a lot stronger about my affiliation with IBM.”
Ernst & Young’s corporate volunteer program started as a way to help employees get global work experience and stretch their skills in new ways, said Deborah Holmes, the firm’s director of corporate responsibility in the Americas. Since the initiative began in 2005, 86 employees have tackled two-month solo projects in six countries to assist small but growing companies that could not otherwise afford the company’s services.
“To go by themselves, in a foreign country where they know no one, and own this project from soup to nuts, is an extraordinary growth experience for them,” Holmes said. “They’re not a piece of the solution, they are the solution. And they come back to work fired up and very aware of their own capabilities.”
But something else happened along the way. The nearly $20 million Ernst & Young has invested to send employees overseas has started to reap dividends, as some pro bono clients have grown big enough to become paying customers — “an unintended happy consequence,” as Holmes put it.
The projects also allow companies to get a firsthand look at the realities of operating in developing countries, which often have limited transportation and technology capabilities.
A team from FedEx, for example, helped the Indian social enterprise SustainTech manage inventory and shipping for its fuel-efficient, firewood-powered cookstoves, which often must be delivered over rough or nonexistent roads to reach the low-income communities the company serves. A year before FedEx’s project, a group of Dow Corning Corp. volunteers helped the cookstove company put systems in place to find manufacturers and start a quality-assurance program.
SustainTech, which has a budget of $250,000 a year, could not have afforded such high-level consultants on its own, said managing director Svati Bhogle.
“It would not have been as profitable as early,” she said. “We would have learned by trial and error.”Katie Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.