By Michael Mapstone, Head of Corporate Partnerships, VSO
Friday 5 December marks International Volunteer Day and to coincide with this, VSO is launching a new global campaign inviting people to pledge to #StepForward and raise the profile of volunteering for development in 2015.
This campaign builds on recent research conducted by VSO and the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) demonstrating that ‘human-capital’ is a central ingredient when determining the effectiveness and sustainability of all types of development intervention.
The question is how do we ensure that people-centred approaches are more integrated in this future vision of development? I believe that business is fundamental to this.
It is vital that the people who need to benefit from volunteering for development are put at the heart of the decisions that affect them. What better way that to promote employee volunteering as an excellent method of creating a holistic and successful means to development; by connecting those in businesses with those on the ground.
Putting people back at the centre
The involvement of people living in poverty when new products and services are being designed is shockingly infrequent, despite them being either the targeted future consumers or latent work force . All too often, smart R&D people sitting in city offices brainstorming the next inclusive business model rarely go and actually speak to the people for whom they are designing.
It is here where we can see the true potential of employee volunteering programmes.
Structured in the proper way and with the appropriate infrastructure, these programmes can put the right people at the heart of good business. These internal programmes can support the staff responsible for delivering against the sustainability strategy set by the enlightened CEO. It does this by giving them an opportunity to gain a deep understanding of their value chain, by working alongside and learning from those within it.
No more ‘volun-tourism’
For over 15 years, VSO has partnered with the corporate sector on development projects, some of which include employee volunteering. Despite this legacy, at times employee volunteering gets bad press. Mocked as ‘greenwash’ or ‘volun-tourism’, it can conjure up an image of giggling employees being sent on a jolly, painting schools.
It's time to change that perception. We need to understand the real value of skills-based employee volunteering programmes and how it can contribute to sustainable development.
With an ever-increasing focus on economic development, there's a lot of talk on the role of the private sector, especially multi-nationals, meaningful actors in development. We are seeing the CEOs of big business engaging more in the development debate, talking about the need to create shared values, inclusive business models and reaching the bottom of the pyramid. It makes sense – there are 1.4 billion people living in poverty and supply chains are dependent on them. They are future consumers and possible employees.
Despite this, we are not seeing the innovation in these companies that is really needed to develop products and take them to market.
Are there services that are useful, relevant and accessible to people living below the poverty line? Certainly not on the scale needed. Why is this still the case despite the captains of industry like Andrew Whitty at GSK and Paul Polman at Unilever rising to the occasion and exemplifying senior leadership for business engagement in development? It isn’t happening, despite an increasingly pro-market rhetoric and approach from the DFID's and USAID's of the world.
We’ve proved it works
At VSO we've seen this in action.
We've seen ‘techies’ from IBM work with the Nigerian government analysing data on social development needs relating to water and gender in Ogun state. They learned that business needs to adapt its approach in a vibrant African market if it is to succeed. We've seen senior managers from a leading agricultural company personally get to know small-holder farmers in order to experience the challenges they face; obstacles to markets, access to credit and inputs, and social issues like low literacy levels and malnutrition.
This experience has led to a better understanding about how businesses can partner with smallholders to improve the quality of life in rural communities and address broader social issues at the same time.
We need to involve more of these leaders in business in order to spark a tidal wave of innovation that will lead to sustainable and equitable economic development. They require support if their ideas, which have been developed alongside and with some of the world’s poorest peoples, are going to gain traction when they get back to their desks.
To support this, VSO, in partnership with Accenture Development Partnerships and with Business Fights Poverty's support and seed funding from DFID, is establishing an innovative hub for businesses and the wider development community. It will build on VSO's extensive experience of volunteering and collaborate with businesses to end poverty.
This volunteering hub is going to support NGO’s to maximise the skills and experience of business employees, and work with businesses to deploy the right staff members into placements that match their expertise. This is more than the logistics. By focusing on those operational employees, the hub will be supporting the real 'intrapreneurs' - those that have the potential to create the products and services we need to see coming to market.
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