This interview was conducted by Maja Heinrich for the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt. 

The software company SAP wants to firmly establish pro bono in the European market and is involved with BMW's 3rd Global Pro Bono Summit in Berlin.

“We can achieve more through pro bono than by simply writing checks,” says Alexandra van der Ploeg, who is in charge of the various pro bono programs within the company’s Global Corporate Social Responsibility division.


Why did SAP initiate the Social Sabbatical pro bono program three years ago?

Our Social Sabbatical started off in a very small way, since we first of all wanted to gain experience in the pro bono field. At the same time, the company was thinking about how to approach CSR more strategically. We wanted to create more social added value and cut back on our purely philanthropic programs. This pivot was not easy and it needed the full support of the company’s management.

Pro bono programs at SAP

As part of the company’s Social Sabbatical program, at least 100 SAP employees every year spend one month working pro bono in emerging and developing countries. In international, interdisciplinary teams of three, they support nonprofits and social enterprises and help them solve their most pressing strategic challenges. SAP is currently sending employees to Columbia, South Africa, China, India, Ethiopia, Brazil, Turkey, and the Philippines. A local pro bono program – SAP ELI (Engaging for Local Impact) – is being launched this year at eight locations worldwide.


And did you get this support?

Definitely! We were convinced that we can achieve more through pro bono than by simply writing checks and, in the worst-case scenario, watching the money go down the drain. The pro bono approach came from within the company. But we realized that, in order to establish the program company-wide, what we needed above all was the support from the management. Fortunately, the concept can be explained convincingly, and it works on many different levels.

Such as?

It is about strengthening leadership skills, staff know-how and, of course, the company’s strategic development.

What organizations do you give a leg up?

We work above all with social enterprises that have a functioning business model and want to grow their portfolio or expand geographically. This is where we can help best. If there are two things that SAP is good at, it is understanding business processes and providing suitable technologies. And by helping these organizations, we are creating direct added value for the local population.

SAP is operating pro bono projects in emerging markets such as India, Brazil, South Africa or the Philippines. Do you do this also with an eye to potential markets?

This is part of our approach. But the main idea is to put our employees to work in a completely foreign environment. The cultural component plays a crucial role. In India or Brazil, business is often done very differently. And this is the moment when our employees have to assume leadership and tell themselves: I am not thrown off by any incalculable or unforeseen situations, but I trust in my skills and my knowledge.

Is it really as simple as that?

You have to be aware of your role in the team – and check your ego at the door. Sometimes, a team can be composed of people from nine different nationalities, including junior staff, seniors or even vice-presidents, plus representatives of all SAP departments, from development to controlling to sales. The employees have to quickly find their feet in the group and perform at their best – regardless of individual sensibilities or hierarchies. After all, it is about delivering long-term results and added value to the organization.

Besides the unusual mix of people, what are the local challenges you face?

An incredible number of things happen simultaneously within a very short time. This means we need to work in a solution- and customer-focused way. One of our teams right at the beginning came up with the motto: Shut up and listen! They heeded it, both in their communications with the client and within the team. They learned the importance of listening and of abstaining from offering ready-made solutions. Often, you need to be on site to see that the challenges are a bit different than described by the organization. Our staff needs to be incredibly flexible and adaptable, since the situation can change from one minute to the next. This is something they are usually no longer confronted with in their everyday work environment at SAP.


There is a huge interest in your pro bono program. Did you make a big effort to advertise the program?

No, not at all. We were overwhelmed by applications, although we did a soft launch. It happened mostly by word of mouth. Now, we receive almost 400 applications for 96 slots every year. After we started the program in 2012, we were building such momentum that we were scaling faster than we had planned. We are currently sending a minimum of eight to ten teams to emerging countries simultaneously.

What kinds of employees do you want to reach?

The company’s so-called top talents. This means that about five percent of the approximately 74,000 SAP employees worldwide are eligible for the program.

There are critics who say that companies cannot save the world.

To me, this criticism is a bit too easy. Politics and companies both play an important role in social and economic development. There is, however, frequently a lack of cross-sector cooperation, where it would be good to partner up. Germany is a welfare state. The countries where we send our staff are far from it. Therefore, the third sector plays a hugely important role in those countries. It is not for nothing that social entrepreneurship has gained so much in importance.

Does SAP see itself as a pioneer in the pro bono field, especially when compared with other major companies?

In any case, we want to firmly establish the topic in the European market and motivate others. For this reason, we are involved with the 3rd Global Pro Bono Summit in Berlin. There are still too few corporations at the international level that have pro bono programs and talk about them.

In addition to the Social Sabbatical, SAP has also started a local pro bono program. Why?

There is a great willingness among employees to make a difference where they live. Moreover, our Social Sabbatical program is very costly – there is a limit when it comes to scaling it any further. With the local programs, we transfer the experience from the Social Sabbatical to the local level; pilot projects have already been completed in Berlin and in Palo Alto, California. Now we will establish the program at all our locations, step by step. It is first and foremost about capacity building, the direct contact with our customers, and the search for pragmatic solutions.

*is your future to be determined?

Want to read more articles like this? Get the tbd* newsletter in your inbox every Thursday. It's great. Even if we do say so ourselves.