Accenture's Smart Global Philanthropy

Over the past year, Accenture (ACN) has quietly aligned much of its corporate citizenship around its Skills to Succeed initiative, in which Accenture teams with strategic partners around the globe to educate people and make them ready for the job market. On Sept. 14, Accenture announced that by 2015, it will have equipped 250,000 people worldwide with the skills needed to get jobs or start businesses. Adrian Lajtha, Accenture's London-based chief leadership officer, recently spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek's Management Editor Patricia O'Connell about Skills to Succeed. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Are all of these Skills to Succeed initiatives done with another group—an NGO, or nonprofit?

In almost every instance where we are seeking to make a sustainable difference, we will work with partner organizations to make that happen. All the things around Skills to Succeed come out of Accenture time. It's real dollars and the pro bono time and skills of our people, rather than just their good will at weekends and things like that.

Accenture has had a long tradition of corporate philanthropy and encouraging employees to give back. So why formalize it with Skills to Succeed?

Our chief executive officer, Bill Green, will tell you that Skills to Succeed reflects our core values, our culture, and our character. Developing skills to help people get jobs, build businesses, and improve their communities is a Top 3 issue with most of the people that he deals with—the clients we have around the world. We needed to build on what was a reasonably longstanding tradition we've had around what I would describe as smart philanthropy. But I wouldn't have necessarily described it as a focused corporate citizenship program.

We strongly believed that goodness rests with what you're about as a company. So we sat down about 18 months ago to think hard about what might be a good focus for us that would resonate on a global basis. That's where Skills to Succeed was born.

You've set the rather ambitious goal of training 250,000 people by 2015.

We wanted to make sure we had something we believe was realistic but that stretched us. And we wanted something that fundamentally expressed Skills to Succeed in terms of the outcome.

Even though you will measure the success of this program by the number of people trained, you must have some sense of what the cost will be.

The figure will be of the order of $100 million over the next three years toward this cause. That is part cash and part pro bono contributions of our employees time and skills. For a company like us, that is substantive. If it needs more money, if it needs more time, that's fine.

What matters more is the 250,000 [people]. All my energies and the energies of the team are focused on: How do we actually deliver to that 250,000?

Do you have a goal for how many Accenture employees you would like to see involved?

We don't. We may over time have targets for the numbers of people involved, but the primary concern is: Do we think we can actually touch 250,000 people? If we can do that with relatively little disruption to the mothership and its day-to-day purpose, wow—how much the better.

What are the kinds of skills you're going to be teaching people?

Skills in employment-readiness, business-building, market-building. One of our sweetest spots is where business and technology skills come together.

Could we talk a little bit about one of the programs you've had success with?

In Brazil there is a huge problem around youth unemployment in spite of the extraordinary state of the Brazilian economy, particularly around the big cities. We identified two local agencies, Rede Cidada and CDI [the Committee for the Democratization of Information] to establish Conexao [the local membership organization of Youth Business International]. We are working with them—training people out of this spectacular area of disadvantage—in the rudiments of technology, right the way through to commercially ready technology skills, through to new-business startup.

It's a complete runaway success. Some 13,500 young people have been trained; 3,500 are already hired; 124 enterprises are now supported; and a number of Accenture people have been involved on a pro bono basis since late 2007.

The success there was one of the things that informed us that we can make a difference with Skills to Succeed. We've established a relationship with Youth Business International. You can start to see how a global organization like Accenture is very, very well-placed to match the ambitions of a global networked organization like YBI, or indeed like Junior Achievement.

How do you decide whom to partner with, or what initiatives deserve attention?

There is an internal governance group, the Corporate Citizenship Council, made up of some passionate leaders around the world, with 25 members—15 of whom are voting members.

When considering a potential partner organization, we will put together a proposal for how Accenture can work with it. We have several considerations. No. 1, is it something that is going to make a real difference in measurable outcome? Will we get bang for the buck in terms of the numbers of people affected? Can we measure that?

No. 2, does it actually harness the best energies of Accenture? If it's just about giving money, that makes us a little bit nervous because we worry about whether that's creating a sustainable end game for the [target] organization. And sustainability of that organization's efforts is crucial because we aren't going to be there forever with all of them.

The third one is: Can we see an opportunity for that to grow across the borders? Is there a way either that the entity we are working with in a given location can make a difference more broadly or is there something we can build that becomes an asset we can scale elsewhere?

Have there been any failures?

We've had lots of learning along the way, as indeed have some of our partner organizations.

Will Skills to Succeed replace all your corporate citizenship?

I hope that over time we'll be able to say it's pretty much all that we do. We are quite disciplined about what really fits. When our people realized that Skills to Succeed is the main game, they made a number of arguments for how XYZ fits into it. In some cases we're saying yes. In others we're saying: I really don't think so.

There is a lot of data about how important a company's values and its corporate social responsibility commitment are to Gen Y. How do you engage those employees who frankly have busier, more-developed lives?

First, there is our legacy. This generation of senior executives grew up in a world where this was the right thing to do.

Actually, much of what we did in the corporate citizenship space was dominated by the senior end of the company and our younger employees always participated by painting schools or building things—you know, giving back to the community.

And if a commitment to philanthropy is part of the expectation of the next generation, if we want the world's best talents to join us and stay with us for the longer term, there's a very clear business case for why the older folks should engage.

It's a top-table issue for us; the executive committee as a whole is completely engaged in this. I think our young folks see that when they see our CEO and me talking about it. It isn't hard to get anybody on board with it. What's hard it is that everybody is in a hurry to make progress quicker and what we need to do is make sure we do it ambitiously, rapidly, but also thoughtfully.

How much of your time does this take up?

In the past year this has probably been at least 50 percent of it. This is a big new endeavor for us and like with any big change, it tends to consume you. For now and probably the next year, corporate citizenship is still going to be the thing that is glowing the hottest.

Are there other companies that you think are doing this kind of thing really well?

Marks & Spencer here in the U.K. had this all-consuming CEO-led project called Plan A that is aimed at having the company become the world's most sustainable retailer. It's called Plan A because their answer is: "There is no Plan B."

We liked what Goldman Sachs (GS) was doing with 10,000 Women. What I liked about that was, they defined it as an outcome. You look at things like an announcement of a $50 million contribution, or one million hours of volunteering. That sounds like a lot, but for what aim? What is the outcome? If it's 10,000 flowers blooming, it's wonderful and it's energetic, but it's not clear to me that it will make a sustainable difference and that it's durable for the company. That's the resonance that we want to have for Accenture.

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