09 November 2006
by Jessica Carsen/CLUJ-NAPOCA
Along a rundown track on the outskirts of Cluj-Napoca, a small city in rural Transylvania, a construction site teems with laborers sawing wood, hammering nails and measuring angles. The tools are basic and the building plans simple, but the workers are not what you might expect; it's a band of executives hailing from corporate heavies Whirlpool and Ikea, who've traveled to Romania from Italy and Sweden.
The well-heeled workforce comes courtesy of Habitat for Humanity, a 30-year-old American-based charity that recruits volunteers to address the problem of poor housing in close to 100 countries. Initially, Habitat assigned volunteers to build simple housing in hard-up places. It issued inhabitants no-profit loans and mortgages and didn't try to build up cash reserves. But lately, it has teamed up with multinationals seeking Corporate Social Responsibility credentials, who send their employees and also pay for the privilege — which has allowed Habitat to expand its programs significantly. Between 25-40% of Habitat volunteers now come this way. In Cluj, the companies insist they're not in it for p.r. points alone: they view it as a tough bonding session with concrete business returns. "This is team building with meaning," says Ian Railton, Italy-based head of Whirlpool's Ikea account team.
The 14 people sweating it out in the Romanian sun certainly share an incentive to work well together. Normally, these designers, project managers, salesmen and marketers manage a multimillion-dollar relationship between Ikea and Whirlpool, the retail chain's exclusive supplier of kitchen appliances. Such strategic partnerships require cohesion, but there is a limit to how much colleagues can bond by e-mail or phone. So now, for three days, they are donning hard hats and tool belts, and building wooden wall frames for some of the 26 houses Habitat is constructing in Cluj. One will go to the Parauan family: five people who now live in one tiny room of a dank, Ceausescu-era tower block, which the executives visit for a stark reality check. Whoops of delight rise up when the first frames are hauled into place and a house starts to take shape. "Sometimes I feel like I've sold my soul, working for a multinational," says Katerina Pette, 30, who moved from Greece to manage the Ikea inventory for Whirlpool. "But when the company gives you opportunities like this, it's like you make penitence in the end ... it helps me realize that what I do can have an impact."
Hubert Kaltenegger, 31, an energetic German product manager, agrees. "If you've been working for five years you think, is this it? You've got your car, your apartment, you can buy nice T shirts, but there's a need to create some value." The "virtual" dimension of work in an IT-dominated society also leaves him wanting more. "You transform data into a really good Excel spreadsheet for the next chain in the process, but what do you actually make? There's nothing like the satisfaction of doing something practical, with a physical result."
If it sounds like the corporate world has a spiritual yearning, it's also true that the nonprofit world feels the need to increase its marketing savvy. Earlier this year, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), another charity that focuses on professional volunteers, broke with its 48-year history by offering short-term placements — from two weeks to six months — rather than the standard two-year commitment. These moves are necessary to attract managers with big hearts but significant time constraints. "It's not a question of whether we wanted to professionalize or not," says Willo Brock, director of Habitat's Europe and Central Asia office and a former management consultant, "but like any sector with a lot of competition, if we didn't give these people a good experience then next year they'd sign up with VSO."
Back home in the luxury of Western Europe, volunteers have been encouraged to post their thoughts on the company intranet. According to Aart Roos, the response has been overwhelming. "Corporate Social Responsibility will never be successful unless there's an emotional commitment from the bottom up," says Roos, the most senior Whirlpool manager on the build. "And who doesn't get touched by this?"