I served in Peace Corps in Thailand from 2012 to 2015. Rewarding, effective and practical, I often wondered not just why there wasn’t more Peace Corps in the world, but also whether the private sector had similar programs to provide employees the opportunity to transfer skills, partner with local communities, and exchange culture. You can imagine my relief and curiosity when I heard about CALL—Northeastern University’s Cultural Agility Leadership Lab—which matches corporate volunteers with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) through National Peace Corps Association to provide pro bono assistance and exchange culture with NGOs. This past June I joined CALL as a cultural coach for Cigna volunteers on a volunteer trip to Bangkok. Now I can say without a doubt: If there’s a Peace Corps for the corporate world, it’s CALL. And CALL not only works—it wins.
CALL’s genius lies in its model. Using the pioneering work of Northeastern University’s Dr. Paula Caligiuri as a foundation—acquiring and then applying leadership, teamwork and improvisational skills in culturally ambiguous settings—emerging corporate leaders embark on short-term volunteer trips to countries where Peace Corps has a presence. Once there, the corporate leaders partner with local NGOs, provide technical support, and learn about local community needs and culture. The NGOs acquire the technical support and also gain corporate work environment skills. The cultural coaches—RPCVs who served in the same country—sharpen their mentoring skills by acting as cultural and linguistic bridges. It’s a win-win. In fact, it’s a win-win-win.
On my trip with CALL to Bangkok, Cigna volunteers were given rare, invaluable experiences that they can now use to strengthen their leadership skills. Paired with Childline Thailand, Brighter Thailand Foundation and Baan Nokkamin Foundation—NGOs that provide primarily leadership, education and health services to Thai youth—Cigna volunteers experienced first-hand the challenges and limitations of one of Thailand’s most vulnerable populations—and the people and organizations that serve it. The NGO that my Cigna team partnered with—Childline Thailand—provides housing, health, education and legal services to homeless and neglected youth, oftentimes victims of sex trafficking. Enthusiastic, eager to learn and help, and—most importantly—open to making mistakes, adjusting, and trying new things, the Cigna volunteers were a perfect match for CALL and their NGO counterparts.
The NGOs made the most effective use of their time, too. Preparing to launch campaigns and improve and enhance operations, each NGO was in urgent need of expert IT support—and Cigna delivered. The NGOs also learned about project management skills.
One of the reasons CALL is such a success is that it doesn’t just drop corporate volunteers into unsuspecting host country hands, hastily tell them what to do, then leave. Quite the opposite; CALL is a team effort. Cigna, the NGOs and the cultural coaches begin coordinating long before the in-country portion starts. Ample planning, relationship building and strategizing takes place between Cigna, the NGOs and the RPCV cultural coaches months in advance. This preliminary work goes a long way to addressing needs and mitigating in-country challenges. Plus, once in-country, the Cigna volunteers and NGO counterparts have plenty of time to break the ice and get to know one another, sharing meals, visiting tourist destinations, and talking about family and life in their respective cultures.
Teachers often say that they do more learning than teaching, and I think it’s safe to say the same can be said for the cultural coaches. Through CALL, cultural coaches have a great opportunity to sharpen mentoring, management and human resources skills. It was also a great way to learn more about corporate culture, and have a better understanding for how a Fortune 50 company operates at the macro and micro levels.
If you’re an RPCV and care about how big companies can have a positive impact on local communities, CALL is right for you. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to visit your homestay families and communities.