In many cases, corporate “global pro bono” programs are able to deliver real, tangible good in the communities in which they operate. How are they able to do this? By focusing not on “dropping in a solution,” but rather on “the transfer of skills,” according to Deirdre White, the CEO of PYXERA Global.
White focused on this topic of the global pro bono in her talk at American University’s School of International Service on October 14 (a talk organized by my co-author, Sherry). Deirdre (also a profilee in Working World) and PYXERA work with corporations around the world to develop and implement corporate, cross-border social programs that work to contribute the corporate employees’ skill sets to a local program or project. Since 2008, PYXERA has worked with 26 corporations, sending 8,000 employees (usually for a month) to 80 countries on five continents. This is impressive.These programs have immense benefits for the corporate employees who participate, White said. Participating employees face unique problems abroad, and learn how to solve those problems in completely different ways. They develop leadership and cross-cultural skills. They are exposed to new work-styles and different ways to innovate. The most common phrase used by corporate employees to describe their global pro bono experiences is “life-changing.”
Corporations also gain something—“they don’t only do this out of the goodness of their own hearts,” White quipped. The corporate business impacts of participating in global pro bono projects include strengthening brand reputation, spurring innovation, and opening new markets.
The benefits to these two groups made sense to me. But my immediate question was: what about the local host businesses/communities? In what ways do they benefit? How do you ensure that the out-of-towners don’t simply swoop in with a “we know best” attitude and implement a change or solution they believe to best, but isn’t actually going to do good for the local community, culture, or business? I think of my friend Karl Dedolph (another Working World profilee) telling stories of his time in the Peace Corps in West Africa, in which this kind of “outside imperialism” was typical. He was once asked, and then given supplies and a team, to build outhouses in his area of northern Togo. The thinking was that this would improve sanitation and hygiene, and thus health. The thinking wasn’t whether local culture was likely to use outhouses for sanitation and hygiene purposes. Karl noted that shortly after the outhouses were built, they were indeed being used regularly—as homes for goats.
So how can this kind of outside imperialist thinking be avoided? White was clear in her answer: it’s all about the transfer of skills. Believing you can simply enter another country or culture (or business) and drop-in a solution that has worked elsewhere is a no-win proposition. But if the focus is on the transfer of skills—meaning, in-depth collaboration on a specific and time-limited task, with a focus not on implementing this solution, but rather on working together to find the best solution—then there is immense benefit to local, hosting businesses and communities.
White described the model PYXERA uses with its corporate clients. They use their in-country contacts to target established organizations and businesses with progressive leadership and a commitment to innovation. These orgs and businesses are required to put “some skin in the game” via both financial resources and staff time, to show their commitment to the project collaboration. Then, both the international corporate staff and the local staff are required to collaborate electronically for at least three months in advance of the on-site work, to better gain an understanding of the project they are working on, the solutions desired, and the work needed to get there. White reiterated that this advance work is key to success. Once the international corporate staff arrives in-country to begin site work, the collaboration is well along the way and the transfer of skills is already happening. White noted that, many times, the solution the joint team originally aimed for is far from where they find themselves at the end.
This struck me as an interesting model—not just for global pro bono projects, but also for others doing work abroad. No matter what you’re doing in another country or culture—whether it’s teaching English or building outhouses or advancing corporate programs—it’s always going to be better if you look to understand those you’re working with, their culture and their needs, rather than trying to jam in the solution that you and your culture believe to best.
I wish I’d known this when I was teaching English in China and tried to get my Chinese students to write and perform skits, like I’d been forced to do in my high school French class. Talk about a bust.