The Ultimate Employee Do-Gooder Perk: A Social Sabbatical In Emerging Markets

Does your job give you a day off a year to volunteer? Maybe you can convince them to give you a paid social sabbatical, where you take your skills to help organizations in emerging markets.

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.

ASMARE’s new logo.

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."

Add New Comment


  • Nsansa

    Great article. There have been a variety of these types of efforts within companies and for MBA students/recent graduates (from volunteer consulting programs to technical philanthropy and experteering....). It's good to see more and more developing now that the business case is even clear (and/or the ROI more proximate). I would love to see more open discussions about the challenges and what didn't work - there is much for all to learn and improve in these programs to optimize and sustain both the local outcomes and capacities and the learning for those on sabbatical.

  • MovingWorlds

    I love that more corporations are promoting international, skills-based volunteering. We actually call it "Experteering" and it has massive potential to accelerate social impact, and provide life-changing experiences!

  • gcapiel

    I'm the VP of Engineering at Benetech - a 501c(3) nonprofit that develops software products to targeted at global social causes regarding access to literacy, human rights and environmental conservation.  We and similar organizations, such as Wikimedia and Code for America are always in need of volunteers from the software industry to help implement innovative new features.  Along with those organizations and others, we launched SocialCoding4Good ( http://socialcoding4good.org ) to help connect CSR programs, the employees they serve and nonprofits, such as Benetech.  The program is in its infancy, but there's been some great success stories already and we're excited that more corporations are looking at these skills-based volunteering opportunities for their employees.

  • David Bradley

    Great idea! I'm looking forward to the day when we start to see actual competition among companies and their CSR initiatives in markets like these. Can you imagine what it would be like if there were two companies aiding two different Garbage Collector companies? I think that would be one hell of a good article/experiment, hell a book!

  • Suzy Allman

    At CharlieDog and Friends, (www.charliedogandfriends.com) we REQUIRE one day a month of volunteer work from our employees -- preferably with an animal rescue cause, since that's the whole reason for our toys to be!  And it's not completely altruistic -- it's great to have employees connected to the cause, and to others working for the cause.

  • Guest

    Such a great idea, allowing employees to refresh, develop new skills and gain new insights and perspectives. Companies like Skills Venture offer to organise these sort of programmes for employers. The question is how to we pursued our employers to take them up on the offer...?