A friend of mine lamented to me that she had found her recent community volunteering stint a waste of time. She had just returned from an overseas volunteering trip organised as part of her company’s leadership programme, where she was supposed to build houses for a rural community. “Most of us had never used a machete before, imagine how much we could get done in one afternoon!” she said.
Her complaint – with all good intention – is not unfounded. The truth is: corporate volunteering may be a growing trend among many companies keen to give back to society but often, disparate, one-off community activities have resulted in little or ineffective progress. A recent article by the Boston Globe even went as far as to say that “corporate volunteers can be a burden for non-profits”.
There are many reasons why community partnerships can end up less successful than they set out to be. A study by National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) in Singapore found that some of the most common problems in corporate giving were misalignment of expectations, differences in objectives, and timeframes. Volunteer welfare organisations often ask for longer-term commitment but many companies want to contribute in singular activities. As a result, precious resources are wasted.
Companies are realising that this needs to change, that their employees are worth more than just a typical man-hour, if they channel the right resources to the right cause.
Whether the motivation stems from progressive years of programme fine-tuning, or the need to measure social impact, more and more companies are making their social investment decisions with a longer-term perspective in mind.
A new trend in corporate social investment
Corporate Citizenship’s latest major research study Flagship Programmes: Focusing Corporate Social Investment for Impact studied the developmental trends of community programmes among companies over time. This global study sought to understand the secret behind impactful social investing through a mix of surveys and detailed interviews with more than 100 corporate community professionals. And it identified a new trend emerging in corporate social investment: the use of flagship programmes to spearhead corporate social investment activities.
Companies that want to realise their potential need to rally key stakeholders – both internal and external – to join them as partners toward that common goal.
One of the key findings of the survey was that leading companies which have successfully built flagship programmes have relentless focus on one thing – to make an impact in a chosen issue area that relates to the company’s core business. It also found a clear shift towards streamlined approaches over time; Starting from ad-hoc, locally-driven initiatives, companies eventually progress toward more structured, thematic social programmes.
And it doesn’t stop there. Once a company has a clear sense of direction and demonstrates greater impact from its social investments, it aligns its entire brand with its core programme. Ad-hoc activities may continue, but these tend to diminish over time. This approach essentially pools resources and expertise in the most effective way.
Rolls-Royce, one of our clients, launched its flagship programme in 2013, with a goal of reaching 6 million people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) by 2020. This initiative was not launched in a day. In fact, as a power systems company, Rolls -Royce already has a number of STEM-related programmes for a number of years. The complete alignment with its core brand signifies how integral the programme is to Rolls-Royce’s business; it not only secures its future talent base, but also enables a flourishing environment for its suppliers and customers worldwide.
Salesforce Foundation’s signature programme is another great example of relentless focus on the core business. The integrated philanthropy model leverages Salesforce’s people and technology to help improve communities around the world. The cloud-based Customer Relationships Management leader donates and offers discounted technology to non-profits and engages its own employees and resources at the same time.
Asia’s way forward
Can we see more of such signature programmes taking place in Asia? I would think so. Singapore, in particular, as a melting pot for multinationals and international non-profit organisations, is already an enabling platform for the creation of impact-driven initiatives. The multitude of engagement opportunities and government-led schemes by which think tanks, social entrepreneurs, NGOs and companies from across the Asian region come together is already generating brilliant, innovative and inclusive solutions.
Microsoft Asia Pacific is showing the way forward through its global flagship programme YouthSpark, with an overarching goal to create opportunities for 300 million young people by 2015. At the centre of this initiative is a multi-stakeholder consultation exercise to understand the needs of youth today. In Asia, the programme is a collaborative partnership with the ASEAN Foundation to train young entrepreneurs in information & communication technology (ICT). Microsoft champions its programme with YouthSpark Hub, a dedicated online hub that pulls together all its programmes in an interactive and engaging way.
That said, we must acknowledge that flagship community programmes aren’t built overnight. Companies that want to realise their potential need to rally key stakeholders – both internal and external – to join them as partners toward that common goal. These partnerships build capacity that take programmes further while measuring progressive impact keeps stakeholders motivated. This is not far off from what so many companies here are already doing today.
Ultimately, less is more. A great flagship programme tells a simple and genuine story about a business playing its role in society. And people – whether employees or customers – will rally behind a brand they love when they understand that they are also part of a great story.
Junice is Director Southeast Asia at Corporate Citizenship, a global corporate sustainability consultancy. Read the Flagship Programmes research and get more insights on key corporate responsibility trends at www.corporate-citizenship.com.