A group on young people participating in a volunteer program

Take Your Employer-Sponsored Volunteer Program on the Road

May 22, 2018

Help your team build life-transforming leadership skills by volunteering abroad.

I was literally on my own (the only volunteer and tourist around), a good 7 hours away from any support, which made it that much more crucial for me to get my bearings quickly, understand the issues and figure out how best to approach my training and capacity building goals. What better way to develop leadership skills than to jump right in!” writes Christine Martinet in a blog post about her experience volunteering abroad. A volunteer from the Canadian Medical Association, Martinet went to Sri Lanka on a Human Resource Advisor assignment with the corporate volunteering program Leave for Change.

While such an extreme experience may not be for everyone, there is undoubtedly a growing interest in employer-sponsored volunteering (ESV) abroad. This is being fuelled by the popularity of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and employees and customers who increasingly expect businesses to contribute to solving societal problems.

When it comes to volunteering, employers can make a huge impact for the greater good — 60% of Canadians would volunteer more if it was organized by an employer, according to a 2017 Volunteer Canada and Investors Group study conducted by IPSOS Public Affairs.

“Since employees are now interested in bringing their whole self to work, when given a choice 68% of employees will pick a job with a company that has the strongest volunteer culture,” says Elizabeth Dove, Director of Corporate Citizenship with Volunteer Canada.

Taking ESV one step further, an increasing number of businesses are encouraging their highly skilled employees to volunteer abroad in developing countries, sharing their skills and knowledge. Sometimes referred to as corporate international service learning (CISL), this relatively new approach has a great number of benefits, including promoting a more positive public image, employee engagement and leadership development.


Many organizations struggle to find workers who can lead in our complex and rapidly changing world. The army phrase VUCA (which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) is often used to describe the new environment in which leaders must work.

In a 2014 white paper published by the Center for Creative Leadership, author Nick Petrie conducted research to determine whether the kinds of training most commonly given to leaders matched up with the skills future leaders will need. Petrie consulted a wide range of experts and academics and identified the following skills as being the most valuable for future leaders:

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  • Adaptability
  • Self-awareness
  • Boundary spanning (the ability to interact with individuals and groups outside the organization to obtain valuable information)
  • Collaboration
  • Network thinking

These skills are not necessarily learned through the most common approaches to leadership development such as training, job shadowing, coaching, mentoring and 360-degree feedback.

They are, however, naturally acquired through CISL. This fact was highlighted in the 2015 CISL Impact Benchmark Study, “Understanding and exploring the long-term impact of corporate international service learning programs,” conducted by Emerging World in collaboration with BD, Credit Suisse, EY, GSK and Microsoft. Participating companies all had well-established CISL programs. The Emerging World study measured 12 different global leadership competencies, including seeing things through a different perspective, self-awareness, working collaboratively, and dealing with ambiguity and complexity.

The results of the study were impressive: 90% of respondents reported improvements in the 12 global leadership competencies, and 75% reported increased employee engagement. When it comes to developing global leadership skills, it can be more advantageous for employees to complete an overseas assignment than to receive traditional leadership training.

“It’s a complete experience — adaptation skills, transferring of knowledge, working in complexity, navigating ambiguity and working cross-culturally. It’s a very intense, rich experience, professionally and personally, that’s hands-on and that cannot be compared to an in-house training program,” says Odette McCarthy, director of Uniterra, a leading volunteer co-operation program.

“In many situations, we see people rise to the occasion when confronted with new situations. This brings out those abilities that individuals have that they weren’t able to express in other situations. And those experiences are transferrable when they come home,” McCarthy adds.

Employee volunteering abroad is not a new idea, but it is one that is slowly gaining traction with organizations.

“Companies are now seeing themselves as part of the global dialogue and seeing how ESV can be part of sustainable development and an expression of a corporation’s global citizenship,” says Mary Beshai, senior advisor, strategic partnerships at the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), which runs the Uniterra program in partnership with the  Centre for International Studies Cooperation (CECI).

WUSC and CECI have been carrying out the Uniterra program since 2004, helping employees find overseas placements. As a result, Uniterra has long-established relationships and operations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Overseas volunteer engagements with their corporate volunteer program are typically three to four weeks, although some employees go for longer periods of time. Uniterra staff handle all of the logistics such as travel arrangements and accommodation and provide help to ensure that volunteers integrate successfully into their overseas roles.

“It’s important for employers to go with an organization that has a local presence and knows the culture and the local situation,” notes Beshai.

When screening potential volunteers, McCarthy looks for motivation, interest, the right attitude, and a blend of soft and technical skills. Getting these pieces in place is critical in order for all partners to achieve their goals. During the program, volunteers are evaluated.

“We do have different criteria around leadership skills that we will be tracking,” says Beshai. “We can then acknowledge [the volunteers’] satisfaction rates and what they have gained from the experience. We also give a summary report at the end of the project, so that the employer understands how each employee has contributed to the activities.”

As with other leadership programs, once employees return home from their overseas assignments, ongoing support from their organization is important in order to integrate and transfer what they have learned into their workplace.


There are as many ways of supporting employees who wish to volunteer their time as there are businesses. Whether volunteering abroad or giving back to your local community, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that will suit every organization. Some companies allow employees to do charity work during business hours, while others provide two or three days a year paid time off to do community work. Employees may decide to use their time to support a charity, or their employer may encourage a group of employees to volunteer as a team. It all depends on the goals of the organization, the resources available and the needs of the community.

If your company doesn’t have an ESV program and you want to start one, Volunteer Canada, a long-established organization that promotes volunteerism in Canada, can provide assistance directly or connect you with a local resource. If you want to look into volunteering abroad, Uniterra is a good place to go for information.

Employer-sponsored volunteering abroad is gaining in popularity as more employers realize the importance of creating strong, healthy communities, both locally and abroad, as well as the lasting benefits such programs provide in terms of employee engagement and leadership development.

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Lesley Taylor
Lesley Taylor, M.Ed., is a professional coach, educator and writer. She has developed and taught leadership courses in the health care and the not-for-profit sectors and in higher education.

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