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Australian Business Volunteers on partnering for change with IBM

January 29, 2016

As we anticipate the dynamic discussions at the upcoming Shared Value Forum around the year’s theme ‘Business: Partnering for Change’ – learn how IBM and not-for-profit international development organisation Australian Business Volunteers have partnered to create shared value in the region and changed the nature of traditional corporate volunteering.

We spoke to Australian Business Volunteers (ABV) CEO Sarah O’Connor about shared value and ABV’s role as one of the implementing partners of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps.

Tell us about IBM’s Corporate Service Corps and ABV

IBM launched the CSC program in 2008 as ‘a corporate version of the Peace Corps’. This is the flagship international corporate volunteering/pro bono program in the world seeing 500 IBM employees placed on pro-bono projects in emerging markets each year. Participants spend four weeks in groups of 12 helping solve economic and social problems in their selected community. To ensure their projects achieve community impact IBM works with international development partners. ABV is one of four global partners and has delivered the CSC program since its inception.

ABV has been around since the early 1980s, but although we have a private sector focus ABV’s projects were until 2008 solely implemented by volunteers drawn from its registry of senior Australian business professionals and small business owners.

How does the CSC program create shared value?

As its ultimate goal is to do well by doing good, the CSC program is essentially about achieving shared value. IBM sees the CSC program as having a ‘triple benefit’. Communities have their problems solved, with measurable impact on core economic concerns; whilst IBMers receive training and development to become 21st Century leaders with the skills and talent to provide IBM with a competitive edge in the marketplace and develop new market segments.

In total the Corporate Service Corps have sent over 2,500 participants in over 250 teams to more than 30 countries globally since 2008. In doing so the CSC program has had a positive impact on the lives of more than 140,000 people through skills transfer and capacity building. Many thousands more have been positively impacted through the services of the organisations the Corporate Service Corps has supported.

For IBM the program isn’t just about philanthropy. IBM is very clear that the program is also about creating real value for the company and its shareholders.  This is because the program benefits IBM and IBMers by increasing IBM’s presence, understanding, and appreciation in growth markets while creating global leaders who are culturally aware and possess advanced consulting skills. In their words “The Corporate Service Corps program enables significant, scalable contributions to global communities while cultivating effective global leaders”.

As a Not-for-Profit, what has it been like to partner with such a significant corporation as IBM?

Among international development not-for-profits ABV is unique in its focus on strengthening business and economic institutions with a vision of alleviating poverty through inclusive economic growth. Thus we’ve always felt that we ‘get’ business. Even so, back in 2008 running such a program and partnering with such a large corporation was new for ABV.

Working with IBM has definitely provided our organisation with a better understanding of big business, but most of all it has made us appreciate the genuine impact that teams of corporate employees can have on development projects. Corporations really do have so much to offer international development – and not just in the form of philanthropy.

Bringing a corporate and an NFP together brings completely different viewpoints and experience to the table and adds a new dynamic to addressing challenging social issues. The technical and management consulting expertise IBM brings are powerful tools to draw on. Conversely, IBM draws on our experience and local knowledge of the communities and our ability to design well informed projects. Our relationship with IBM has matured over the years and we have a strong collaborative relationship.

Are any Australian businesses implementing similar international pro-bono programs?

Our corporate volunteering partners tend to be global partners headquartered outside Australia with regional interests. Of course we would like to partner with Australia-based companies given we’re an Australian NFP. The model is likely to appeal to corporations with significant international interests and a desire to boost their visibility and the intercultural skills of their employees. With the Australian Government’s current focus on engaging business in international development efforts, and the various Asian free trade agreements coming into effect, there may well be businesses looking at innovative ways of boosting their market presence in the countries of our region.

Harnessing the expertise of ABV’s registry of business volunteers rather than corporate employees – we also work with companies to support their ‘social licence to operate’ in developing countries, and in this space we are in some interesting discussions with Australia-based companies.

The types of projects we design can also deliver shared value – for example with a mine in a developing country that draws supplies from the local community is going to be both more efficient and more beneficial to the local community through this way of thinking and ‘local cluster development’. Strong local small businesses bring more inclusive growth to the community, and the mine will be supplied more cost-effectively – doing so will also build acceptance and trust with the community. ABV’s volunteers are business professionals and so ABV has the expertise to work with both the company and local suppliers to develop the market and the business acumen of local suppliers to be able to meet company requirements.

Read more from Stanley S. Litow, Vice President, Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs and President, IBM International Foundation

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Sarah O’Connor, CEO, ABV

Image credit: Citizen IBM