In Kolkata, Arindam Bhattacharyya is busy every Saturday afternoon teaching computer literacy skills to children from disadvantaged homes. An alumnus of IBM Corp.’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC), a programme that allows IBM employees to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in emerging markets, Bhattacharyya spent four weeks in Ghana, helping a pharmaceutical firm, which was working with an NGO, organize its business model.
“It was a great learning experience for me. In four weeks I had to overcome malaria, experience their government healthcare facilities and work with teams that had no basic utilities such as printers or email,” says Bhattacharyya, whose yearning for socially productive work is an established fact at his workplace. In 2005, the young engineer had taken a six-month leave of absence to work with an experimental school in Ladakh. “I was clear that I would quit if the office did not give me time off,” says Bhattacharyya.
Incentives, higher compensation or prized promotions are no longer the only tools with which companies are wooing high-potential employees. The urge to engage in socially productive work is now finding resonance in workplaces too. Rather than lose their best and brightest to the social sector, companies are now being proactive, providing such employees an opportunity to do both—keep their jobs and take time off to engage with the social sector. Of course, such activities also help in building a trustworthy image in the eyes of a company’s consumers and clients.
At IBM, this initiative has been formalized by the setting up of the IBM Corporate Service Corps, which last year gave 750 employees (out of the 15,000 who applied) a chance to spend four weeks volunteering at NGOs in emerging markets, including India. From India, 100 employees participated in the programme, working in markets such as Ghana, the Philippines and Vietnam.
All in a day’s work: Arindam Bhattacharyya of the IBM Corporate Service Corps teaches computer skills to children from poor families every Saturday. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Infosys Technologies Ltd has a “Policy on Sabbatical for Community Service” that allows employees time off from regular work schedules to engage in community work. An option that Chennai–based Infoscion Nidhi Malhotra made use of by volunteering at The Banyan, an NGO that works in the area of mental health awareness. She worked in the advocacy and fund-raising teams, wrote seminar reports and funding proposals while zeroing in on grants the organization could apply for. She also pitched in by helping organize Mental Health Awareness campaigns across the corporate world and used her expertise to get the NGO tax exemption status in the US.
“My preconceived notions about the stigma related to mental illness and treatment have all been corrected ever since I started work here. I feel I am a much better person today,” says Malhotra.
It is this ability to mould personality and skill sets in an off-work environment that companies are trying to encourage. “Through CSC, IBM is able to give its employees a unique development opportunity that cannot be replicated in training sessions or other regular learning activities held within classrooms,” says Chandrasekhar Sripada, vice-president, human resources, IBM India. Sripada believes individuals receive a unique personality and leadership development opportunity through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, one they can then leverage in their careers.
The list of companies engaging in CSR activities has seen a steady spurt over the years. For instance, Hyderabad-based Naandi Foundation, an NGO that focuses on health, nutrition and academic support for children in government schools to ensure they do not drop out, is collaborating with a host of companies, including Dr Reddy’s Laboratories and outsourcing multinational CapGemini SA. “The engagement with CapGemini has worked so well that the Scandinavian arm of the company has launched an initiative, Naandi Norway, that focuses on providing sustained support to the foundation,” says Manoj Kumar, CEO, Naandi Foundation. The representatives of Naandi Norway took part in the just-concluded Mumbai Marathon to raise funds for the foundation. “For companies sending their executives to work in situations where the goal is to find solutions for base-of-the-pyramid problems, it creates a pool of senior talent who are trained in real life situations and not in a simulated environment,” adds Kumar.
Insurance firm Aviva India has tied up with UK-based Raleigh International to enable around 25 employees from Aviva offices worldwide to work on community projects such as eco-sanitation, rainwater harvesting and teaching language skills to tribal communities, among others. “Typically those nominated are senior-level executives and this exposure to leadership in different dimensions, without hierarchy, provides challenges. You cannot fake your behaviour in such situations,” says Mohammed Shahber, associate director, HR, Aviva India.
Employee retention is clearly a significant fallout of such projects. In a fall 2009 evaluation of the efficiency of IBM’s CSC programme by Prof. Chris Marquis of the Harvard Business School, it was found that commitment to IBM showed a modest, although statistically significant, increase.
Manoj Kumar, CEO, Naandi Foundation. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Apart from gaining an edge in the war for talent, employers are also seeking to foster leadership skills that will help them prepare employees for a business environment that is more socially inclusive. “In our global age of distributed work where there is significant ambiguity and lack of control, ‘resilience’, or the ability to deal with adversity and challenges is an important characteristic,” says Prof. Marquis in his evaluation of the CSC programme.
During her stint as a consultant with the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority in the Philippines, Sadhana Mishra, programme director, IBM India/South Asia, had to help the organization transform from a public enterprise to a commercial port. “In four weeks, we had to prepare templates for a business model and, more importantly, work with the top management of the company to implement the recommendations,“ says Mishra, who rates her stint with the CSC programme as one that has made her more sensitive to other communities. “Deep down there were biases that I had to overcome. These are important skills to survive in a borderless world,” says Mishra.
Interestingly, engaging in CSR activities works both ways. Says Kumar: “The growing trend of mainstream companies engaging with the social sector is part of a larger move to create a soul for companies.” Agrees Chris Deri, executive vice-president and director of Global CSR Practice at Edelman, a public relations firm: “The whole concept of the way companies are approaching CSR today is changing. Companies are increasingly beginning to engage in CSR activities to build their own trust in the eyes of their consumers.” Deri quotes from a 2009 Midyear Edelman Trust Barometer survey on a sample size of 1,675 respondents in six countries, including India, the US, UK and China. The survey recorded the lowest trust levels among the public for businesses, a fallout of the spate of bankruptcies, bailouts and scams in the last couple of years. The survey goes on to add that businesses win when they take on big societal challenges and engage in private sector diplomacy.
Adds Deri: “The mainstreaming of CSR activities is catching up in India too now. It is no more simply Western jargon. Businesses have realized that consumers are willing to pay more to a company that acts on ideals. Increasingly, it is not enough to be just perceived as a company that does no harm. Today, you have to be seen as an institution that also does good,” says Deri.
Clearly the business of social good has moved beyond the not-for-profit sector and been embraced by mainstream companies.
Bobby John Varkey contributed to this story.
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