How to Build Cultural Agility Through International Company-Sponsored Volunteerism Programs

Recent research findings show that well-designed International Corporate-Sponsored Volunteer (ICV) programs build participants’ cultural agility and their sense of social responsibility, helping to deliver a deeper understanding of critical issues in key emerging markets.

A survey of global CEOs found that a dearth of global business leaders is one of the greatest risks for the future growth of firms. In addition, developing global business leaders is critical for a firm to remain competitive. Now consider these survey results alongside recent research findings that well-designed International Corporate-Sponsored Volunteer (ICV) programs build participants’ cultural agility and their sense of social responsibility, helping to deliver a deeper understanding of critical issues in key emerging markets. Could this be an effective solution?

ICV programs, if you aren’t familiar with them, provide opportunities for a firm’s skilled associates to go “on loan” as pro bono advisors to non-governmental organizations (NGO) in developing countries. The participating associates provide short-term, project-based technical expertise for projects identified by the partner NGO, which are aimed at NGO capacity-building.

Different Ways to Structure ICV Programs

In the last decade, there has been a fourfold increase of firms adopting ICV programs due to the mutually beneficial “win-win-win” for the sponsoring firms, the participants, and the NGOs. My research has found that while the benefits of ICV programs are similar across firms, their structure differs based on several questions, including:

  • Who participates and with whom?
  • How long is the ICV volunteerism assignment, both virtual and in-country?
  • Where is the location of the ICV assignment?

To better understand the options available for the structure of your ICV program, let’s consider some of the differences:

  • Targeted Participants or Open Applications: ICV programs have been designed for a variety of employee participants. In some firms, ICV programs are designed for a targeted group of high potentials or global leadership development rotational program participants. In the latter case, participants volunteer between rotations when their absence would not be too disruptive to the organization. ICV programs in other firms are open to a broader swath of employees, with a selection process based on tenure, performance, and skills that match the needs of the partner NGOs’ requests.
  • Individual or Team-Based Projects: For some firms, ICV programs are team based, usually composed of associates from around the world with differing technical or professional skills. These teams have the added developmental benefit of a multicultural team operating in a host country previously unfamiliar to the team members. In other cases, the projects are individual assignments that also can spur development of cultural agility because participants must fully immerse themselves in the relationships they develop during their volunteer work, as they are relying solely on their own experience.
  • Short- or Long-Duration Projects: The duration of the assignments vary from a few weeks to six months. The in-country portion of the program is sometimes continuous (for a period of time), intermittent (with multiple short-term visits), and sometimes staggered (with team members going in-country, a few members at a time). With respect to the development of cultural agility, longer, well-designed projects are the best. However, there is value in shorter experiences, especially those that are accompanied by cultural coaching.
  • Balance Between Virtual and In-Country Service: Most programs include virtual meetings with the NGO and fellow team members before departing for the in-country portion of the assignment. The virtual component can be ramp-up work in preparation for the in-country project initiation. Other ICV programs have virtual consultation as a significant portion of the volunteer experience, usually after the in-country portion of the assignment. The in-country portion is, by far, the most developmental in building cultural agility.

3 Features of ICV Programs That Build Cultural Agility

As mentioned above, there are a variety of different ways to construct an ICV program within your firm. Try a pilot program that fits your company, using practical parameters that will achieve your goals for cultural agility. In whatever version you select, try to embed the following features to encourage the development of cultural agility in ICV participants:

  • ICV Participant Preparation: Prior to the start of the interactions with the NGO partner in the host country, companies should offer training tools with two goals in mind. The first is to build ICV participants’ awareness of potential cultural differences in the host county, and the second is to foster self-awareness of cross-cultural competencies and provide a strategy for building those competencies in-country.
  • In-County Coaching and Reflection: Once ICV program participants are in-country, their development can be facilitated through cultural coaching. Coaches can help ICV participants work through cultural challenges and help participants be more effective in their volunteer assignment. It also is recommended that ICV participants reflect on their feelings and observations while in-country through activities such as journaling and writing blog posts.
  • Reintegration after the ICV Assignment: Coaching should continue after the ICV assignment, upon reentry, to help facilitate reflection and development of cultural agility. To encourage knowledge transfer from participants to firm, companies should develop a way for ICV participants to communicate their insights to senior managers in a structured way. In addition, companies can identify opportunities for returned ICV participants to continue to volunteer (on their own time). In doing so, they can foster ongoing development of participants’ sense of social responsibility.

With only a limited number of developmental international assignments available for the wide pipeline of talent of those seeking to build cultural agility, ICV programs are an excellent option for firms. As an added benefit, ICV programs are also cost effective. On a person-by-person basis, well-designed ICV programs cost a small fraction of the price of international assignments but are equally effective at achieving comparable levels of cultural agility development.

ICV programs are a real option to develop cultural agility in your firm’s workforce, one including additional benefits to the employee participants, the firm, and the NGO partner organization—a real “win-win-win” for all.

Paula Caligiuri, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy at Northeastern University and the director of the Cultural Agility Leadership Lab (CALL), a company-sponsored international volunteerism program. She is also the author of “Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals.” Contact her via e-mail: p.caligiuri@neu.edu.

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