Corporate volunteering has hit a new phase. It's gone global.

On St. Patrick's Day, I had the opportunity to visit Ernst & Young's office in Manhattan to hear about the firm's experience with sending some of its top-notch performers to South America to help companies meet their business goals. 

The firm's midtown cafeteria was transformed for a celebratory reception, with E&Y's Corporate Responsibility Fellows donning yellow ribbons to identify their participation in the program. Their excitement and pride was palpable. The program allowed them to go overseas and work, with E&Y sponsoring their stay while paying full salary and benefits.

In its third year, the number of participants in the program has doubled to 10. This year's group gave brief introductions describing where they traveled and what they worked on when they arrived - no easy feat to explain in a matter of minutes. Many were representing E&Y offices across the country. All went overseas to share their very different areas of expertise - from human resource strategies to budgeting to information technology initiatives - in an attempt to satisfy a number of challenges these global companies face.

Three fellows were given the chance to explain their experiences further. Andrew Clark, who works in E&Y's fraud investigation and dispute services in Washington, D.C., talked about going to Buenos Aires and helping a distributor of generic medicines improve its business processes so more people could get access to affordable prescription drugs. Clark described the experience as a "powerful professional development tool that empowers each participant and ripples through the firm." Chucking his "cloak of routine," Clark entered the country barely knowing a word of Spanish and lived out of a suitcase in a hotel alone for three months, without his usual team of colleagues by his side.

"It's the best executive training course in the world," he said. His sparse Spanish-language skills forced him to speak more plainly and use less jargon at work, he added.

Clark proposed to his girlfriend in Argentina, and came back from his journey recharged and "ready to return to my practice with fresh enthusiasm," he said.

The companies chosen for the program were not random. Ernst & Young partnered with Endeavor, a nonprofit organization dedicated to scoping out high-impact entrepreneurs worldwide, supplying them with business-savvy advice and connecting them with financial opportunities. Companies participating in the fellowship program had to show exemplary leadership in their home countries.

Also in attendance was Greg Hills, a director at FSG Social Impact Advisors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating social progress by advancing the practice of philanthropy and corporate responsibility. He said 40 percent of major corporations are now sending volunteers overseas. Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers were included in Hills' 2007 "Best Practices in International Corporate Volunteering" guide.

"Typically, corporations are doing corporate volunteering. The new model is what we call cross-border volunteering," he said, adding that companies have only really started this type of outreach within the last three to five years. He commended E&Y for entering into the private sector and helping small and midsized companies further their local economies, rather than focusing on the typical recipients of volunteerism - nonprofits and governments.

"It's really powerful and a great approach," he said.

The presentation concluded with a few words from E&Y's chief executive, Jim Turley, who praised the fellows on a job well done.

"We try to dedicate ourselves to helping others achieve their potential," he said. "We try to make a real difference in doing that. You have made a tremendous difference to our organization."

Turley invited people to enjoy the South American-influenced drinks and food offered at the reception. "I'm partial to Pisco Sours," he said. "I've had many of those down in Chile."

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