- corporate social responsibility
- global CSR programme
Padmasini, or Padma, Dayananda is the Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant, a global digital services and consulting company. Originally from India but currently based in the UK, she has a background in electronics and communications engineering and has been recognised for her work with the awards for TechWomen 100 in 2020 and Women in IT for Social Mobility in 2022. Having held a number of positions in various countries over her 21 years with Cognizant, the thread that continues to string her body of work together is her personal passion for supporting the local community – wherever she’s worked and lived.
With close to 400,000 employees across 41 countries, Cognizant’s corporate purpose is to improve everyday life, be it with the products they create for clients, the communities where they live and work, or for the well-being of their employees and associates. And this is exactly what their volunteer led social impact programme, Outreach, aims to do.
The programme has two main focus areas: Inclusion in Tech and Community Impact. Under Inclusion in Tech, the team hones in on how they can use their niche skills to enable tech education, up-skilling, and re-skilling for children, youth, the elderly, refugees, and more. And under Community Impact, they look to empower charities with the right digital skills to deliver a larger impact to their beneficiaries and the community.
Cognizant’s top focus is taking action against climate change, and they’re happy to find that almost all of their employees are extremely passionate about what they can do to support the environment.
Padma said, “We do a lot in terms of creating awareness among our employees, encouraging them to take action to contribute to the planet. This programme is called ‘My Net Zero Journey.’ However, we still keep our grassroots spirit alive by enabling any associate who’s passionate about any cause to volunteer for it. This could be about mental health or blood donation, for example. This is what we call the heart of Outreach and the rest of our initiatives are aligned to our bigger and wider organisational strategy.”
Read on to learn how Padma and her team enable employees to inspire the efforts of their Outreach programme while also putting a focus on market and business needs.
Turning an employee-driven volunteering initiative into a holistic CSR programme
Back before 2007, Cognizant associates were already working hard to contribute to their local communities, particularly in India where their largest employee base is located. When stories of these efforts bubbled up to leadership, the team realised it was the right moment to provide support and a platform to augment the company’s contributions – and this is how Outreach came to be.
The passion of their employees is what keeps the pulse of Outreach going – but there are a number of other factors such as ESGs and business impacts that also shape the structure of their CSR programme.
Padma explained, “Everything that we do, besides just making a social impact, also delivers a business impact. So as and when the ESG concept grew, we sat back and listened. We heard what our employees wanted to do, but we also heard what is crucial or critical for our business. So we look at it as a Venn diagram of what our purpose is or what our employees are passionate about (what the organisation is good at, what our needs and skills are), what is needed in the marketplace, and our strategy as a business.”
According to Padma, it is this marrying of market needs, business needs, and purpose that guides a company towards building a successful programme.
She continued, “CSR is more about social impact and ESG is understanding what you’re good at, what your purpose is, what the organisational value is. Without clarity on that, taking the next step is always a risk. Once you’ve defined what your purpose is and what you’re good at, then go out and see what your associates or employees are passionate about. Give that voice to volunteers to get them to feel their perspective is important. Then, consider the needs of the market. If you’re a single country, single community-based organisation, what is the priority in that community? You could go ahead and say, ‘I’m going to do STEM education.’ But if homelessness is the biggest crisis in the community, you have to understand the core problems that you need to address and see if that aligns with your purpose.”
Thanks to Cognizant’s start as an employee-led, grassroots initiative, they already had a strong handle on what triggers employee passion and insight into what kind of support their markets required. But when they examined their Venn Diagram, they saw a gap emerge in their approach to the company’s organisational needs.
This is when Cognizant leadership began to understand the evolving business needs that a strong CSR programme can tackle, including business challenges related to talent attraction and retention, diversity & inclusion, and other business factors.
Thus began a two year journey of rapid transformation for their programme that would better meet each circle of their Venn Diagram. All of this was done by:
- Establishing a vision and then delivering this vision to the team downstream
- Spreading the word among volunteers to make them feel confident that this change would not affect how the programme empowers employees and addresses their needs
- Maintaining agility in the face of change
“Basically, we’re increasing our social impact, but with a focused point of view and with an operating model that supports this form of delivery. So from a very India-focused programme, we went on to expand to 41 countries to break into a global programme.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
Growing a regional programme into a global one poses a number of logistical challenges that Cognizant continues to address as they expand. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these challenges and how Padma and her team go about solving them.
Cognizant’s approaches to the barriers of building a global programme
With a truly global reaching programme, Padma constantly reflects upon how to create a powerful culture of giving back at Cognizant that inspires employees no matter where they are based.
Her question is: How do you get them to see this vision, experience the culture, and take action on behalf of the company?
“Having a one-size fits all kind of a programme doesn’t work because maybe for some skills-based volunteering is tiresome. So we offer a variety, for example, they can do an interview workshop or they can also go and plant a tree.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
Of course, building a programme with varied offerings for all employees is not so simple for an international company. Luckily, Padma shared a number of strategies that global companies can adopt to overcome common challenges.
First, it’s crucial to look at the structure of their team to understand how they go about developing their programme.
Thanks to Cognizant’s Outreach Project Team, the company has 30 dedicated global strategists who liase with local volunteers and charities to understand the needs of the market. From there, the Impact Delivery Team executes the ideas that come from strategising with beneficiaries – and this is where the customisation of their global initiatives happens.
“We have almost a campaign-based delivery on programmes. And it’s a learning process because the talent base has changed so much and every region is different...It requires a lot of agility – what worked for the last ten years will not work now.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
While a lot is learned in practice, here are a few of the strategies that helped Padma and her team spread goodness globally through Outreach:
- Gamifying the volunteer experience to promote healthy competition amongst business units
- Organising regional conventions to inspire employee buy-in
- Providing content in multiple languages to give employees a sense of belonging in the programme
- Recruiting employee ambassadors to help spread their mission and lead in different areas of the world
- Sourcing local volunteering activities in a global level through a CSR platform
Here are some insights into how Cognizant uses these strategies to expand their programme.
Gamifying the volunteer experience
“We have challenged our employees to reach X level of awareness, completion of the training, and programmes by committing to various life style changes affecting the environment...This builds a sense of competition between the various business units.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
Localising content to fit employee needs
“We’ve got a good global reach now and we are just taking off in terms of increasing our impact in Europe where there are multiple languages, as well. The content we have, we can’t just pick and deliver it in Poland, as well as in Germany.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
This was the first year that Padma's team did industry insights research into Germany and the German language. They are aware that it takes a lot more energy and focus because it's a small market with a small audience. But it helps them learn what really works in the region.
Recruiting Cognizant’s Outreach Voyagers
“We have good volunteers, we talk a lot about them, and we share their stories. Then they inspire more volunteers to come in – and I’m confident this model is working based on the number of volunteers that have signed up just this year.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
Sourcing local activities on a global level
Padma stated, “We have our own in-house Outreach app, which has developed over the years and serves a lot of the India market, as well as Asia Pacific. Given that we have access to the needs and connections to charities, the app basically enables us to collate volunteer registrations and offer our rewards programme. But when we tried to expand to the global market, the challenge was that we didn’t have relationships with charities, and we didn’t know where the opportunities were.”
“That’s when we established a great relationship with Benevity. The platform gives us access to charities that are aligned to our themes and tells us exactly what requirements they have, how many volunteers they need, and when they need them so that we’re able to deliver volunteers. So if a volunteer based in a city wants to do a one-off volunteering opportunity, they can go into Benevity and see what’s available around them – and we get great reporting and metrics out of that,” she concluded.
Taking their partnership one step further, Cognizant also uses the platform as a recruitment tool for growing their charity training programmes.
“We use the Benevity platform in a creative way, as a sort of two-way street. Benevity gives us access to charities, then when we deliver training programmes for charities, they can take them to the charities that are already on the platform and see if they’re interested in participating.”Padma Dayananda – Global Head of ESG Outreach – volunteering led social impact programme at Cognizant
In order to track the impact of their efforts, Cognizant defines ‘impact’ in two ways:
- External impact: How many beneficiaries were impacted, how many people attended a session, etc.
- Internal business impact: Providing skills and training or building a diverse talent pool
To better measure both kinds of impact, they internally track metrics such as:
- How many unique volunteers register regularly onto their CSR platform – Benevity
- How many volunteers offer their skills through skills-based volunteering opportunities
- How many of volunteers are actually developing skills as part of volunteering
Through these efforts their team has put together interesting reports that show that retention is 11% more among volunteers than those who have not volunteered or experienced volunteering. And they are hopeful for the future of the data and social impact value they can create.
Padma shared, “We are currently working on a social value proposition to look at how we can monetise social impact to actually put a dollar value to the impact. But for right now we measure impact in terms of lives touched, students impacted, trees planted, volunteers who have been made more aware of their environmental commitments, etc. But I think as an industry, we’re all looking for a more tangible measurement factor, and we hope to be leading that journey. Because we have 4.2 million volunteering hours done so far, and I think we are in a good place to lead this definition of what social impact could be.”
Tips & advice for companies
- Put together a rewards programme to incentivise the participation and championing of your programme.
- Having the right blend of grassroots and business alignment is important to deliver employee engagement and business outcomes while responding to change with agility.
- Work with your people analytics and data analytics teams, as well as a CSR platform, to find information on the age groups of employees, what kind of volunteering they enjoy, how many of them are repeat volunteers, how many of them are not experienced volunteers, etc. This can help your team create more targeted programmes, particularly on a global level.
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