Busy professionals find time to be global humanitarians


Adriana Ramirez, a manager for IBM, is currently in Brazil for four weeks working on pro bono projects with charities there. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

Adriana Ramirez’s black suitcase was neatly packed a week before her big, international trip. There’s no room for procrastination when you’re a mother of two young children going on a month-long business trip.

And this is no ordinary trip.

She is in Brazil assisting an organization that helps poor children with cancer get free medical treatment. Normally, the idea that she might be able to support a cause so far away would be nearly impossible. As a wife, mother and IBM manager overseeing billing and invoicing for federal contracts, she just simply wouldn’t have the time.

IBM knows this.

For the past six years, the company has been offering its employees a chance to have a Peace Corps-type experience on the company’s dime. It’s a type of corporate philanthropy that is increasingly hitting the sweet spot between companies looking to make better employees and busy working professionals seeking greater meaning in their professional and personal lives.

IBM’s Corporate Service Corps works as an international pro bono program where for four weeks, employees offer free consulting services to charities and municipalities in developing countries. Employees have helped a Nigerian province figure out the logistics of providing financial and health-care assistance to poor women and children. In Kenya, employees helped the government write aspects of its constitution that deal with the use of the Internet. A group also trained computer coders in Senegal with business skills.

Currently, Ramirez is in Recife, Brazil, with 15 other employees doing four different projects with charities in that region. Her team comes from various departments within IBM and was chosen through a rigorous application process that included three essays. While in Brazil, they were given four weeks to recommend a new financial system for a support center for children with cancer.

“I’ve always been interested in philanthropic causes,” said Ramirez, 35. “In addition to being philanthropic, I know this experience will offer me the skills, leadership, exposure and relationships I need in a shorter time frame.”

IBM is not the only company to offer help in this way.

PepsiCo created PepsiCorps in 2011 has since sent 34 employees to Ghana, India, Brazil and the United States to offer free consulting services to organizations in the areas of clean water and sustainable agriculture. Google Reach is a three-month experience where Google offers its employees a month-long leadership development training before deploying overseas for a month to address various humanitarian challenges. Upon return, they take another month to prepare the next group.

Each year, Ernst & Young sends 15 managers to a different project in either Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile or Colombia for seven weeks to offer free consulting services to promising small businesses in developing communities. FedEx, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pfizer and John Deere have also instituted global pro bono service programs.

Local law firm McDermott Will & Emery gave $2,800 to fund one of its lawyer’s recent international service trip to Kenya.

Britt Haxton, a tax lawyer in the District at McDermott Will & Emery, still gets choked up about her recent visit to Nairobi, Kenya, with a youth development nonprofit called Every Girl Counts.

“I think that when we are able to do the type of work that we find fulfilling and we know we’re supported by our bosses to do that, I feel very rewarded and proud to do the work I’m doing as a tax lawyer,” Haxton said. “I came back and I realized I have been given so many opportunities. I know I better work really hard and not waste this opportunity. Shame on me if I waste it.”

Companies reap rewards, too. IBM reported that 90 percent of participating employees increased their leadership skills and eight out of 10 of managers said that after the trip, their employees showed improved attitude and motivation.

For Ramirez, doing humanitarian work is a chance to give back.

Born and raised in Asuncion, Paraguay, her family was acquainted with economic challenges. Her mother, a housekeeper, left Ramirez in the care of an aunt to pursue a better life in the United States for the family. Ramirez would often attend the school where her aunt taught impoverished children.

Malnourished children with no shoes in a small room was the extent of the local school, she recalled. “The poverty was so in-your-face,” said Ramirez, who lives in Bethesda.

When she moved to the United States to live with her mother as a teenager, Ramirez resolved to get a well-paying, stable job after college. An internship with IBM turned into a budding career at the company, and she continued to do community projects on the side, such as volunteering with UNICEF and the local Paraguayan community to raise money for uniforms and building projects.

When she saw the e-mail for IBM’s Corporate Services Corps, she knew it was the right kind of opportunity and decided to apply.

International service projects have become such a popular philanthropy practice that each year executives at major companies gather to attend the International Corporate Volunteerism Conference.

Today and Tuesday, hundreds of executives from various companies are attending the fifth annual ICV Conference in the District to discuss the benefits and best practices of global pro bono programs.

Here are the benefits some companies reported:

3 GlaxoSmithKline reported 92 percent of employees that did global pro bono projects are “able to drive change in their organization.”

3 IBM reported 82 percent of employees agreed the pro bono experience increased their desire to continue their career at IBM

3 93 percent said that compared to other leadership experiences at IBM, this was the best.

3 Nine out of 10 would recommend another employee to apply for the pro bono program at IBM.

There are several third-party groups that organize pro bono projects for businesses:

3 Pyxera Global: Facilitates international volunteer programs for multinational corporations. Mainly connects them to nongovernmental organizations.

3 World Action Teams: Designs pro bono projects in emerging markets. Projects are usually one week.

3 Endeavor: Manages trips that connect corporations to small businesses in emerging markets.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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