A number of big companies, including Intel, Microsoft, and General Mills, offer paid sabbaticals for their employees to recharge. Software giant SAP isn’t one of them—the company offers only unpaid sabbaticals. But SAP is piloting a unique alternative: the paid social sabbatical, which allows specially selected employees to take time off from their regular work to collaborate with NGOs in emerging markets like India, Brazil, and South Africa.
The program, developed in partnership with CDC Development Solutions, was created for "high potential employees" to develop leadership skills, connect with leaders in emerging markets, teach SAP about the needs of NGOs in these markets, generate strategic social investments for the company—and of course, support the development of the NGOs, which were selected with help from CDC.
"When we look at the development of CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs, we look at four components: how can we leverage employee core expertise, how can we engage multiple stakeholders, what’s the societal impact, and what’s the impact back to our business. These were all incorporated in the planning and development phase of the program," explains Brittany Lothe, head of CSR at SAP and creator of the social sabbatical program.
The pilot social sabbatical program, which recently ended, sent nine employees (selected through a written application and interview process) to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where they worked in teams with three NGOs—an association of garbage collectors, an organization that empowers people with disabilities, and an institution that supports artisans by exporting their products internationally.
Evan Welsh, the global corporate and product communications lead for sustainability and CSR at SAP, worked in a team of three SAP employees with ASMARE, the garbage collector association. The crew was tasked with coming up with an internal and external communications plan for the association, which has grown in recent years. In addition to employing almost 200 garbage collectors, ASMARE now operates a restaurant run by former garbage collectors and creates and sells artwork made from recyclable materials.
"People had a negative perception of garbage collectors, that they were interfering with traffic and look dirty. We wanted to create a new written and visual identity," says Welsh. In only a month (technically 19 work days), the group did just that. They created ASMARE’s first new logo in 22 years, created a set of communications materials to show off the new areas that ASMARE is working in (both in English and translated into Portuguese), developed the template for a new website, and created the organization’s first electronic newsletter along with an editorial calendar for the rest of the year.
According to Welsh, the other SAP teams were equally successful. "The project is officially over, but we’re all still in contact with these organizations and plan to be for awhile," he says.
Next up: SAP is sending employees to India and South Africa in October. The company will eventually expand the program into two or three other locations, all strong emerging markets with growth potential for entrepreneurs. Judging by the program’s initial success, it will be around for awhile. "It was a truly amazing experience to travel to a different country and immerse oneself in a work environment and different culture … with people you’ve never met before from SAP," says Welsh. "Looking back to see what was accomplished in 19 days, it’s something I never could have personally imagined."