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Buy42.com and the SAP Social Sabbatical team are seen in Shanghai. SAP employees took time off to help Buy42.com build its online business.

The Associated Press

What if the best way to motivate your staff isn't more vacation time, free food or a games room, but instead an opportunity to use their skills to help others in need?

It's an employee perk sometimes described as a social sabbatical or "experteering," which allows staff to spend paid time away volunteering for social causes close to home or in emerging countries around the world.

More companies are offering various versions of the volunteer gig, catering in part to the rise of millennials in the workforce who, numerous studies show, want to work for companies that give back to society.

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Companies benefit from having more engaged, well-rounded employees, many of whom also come back with broader skills and possibly new business relationships from the experience. Many corporations also use the opportunity to leverage their products and services and boost their brand through these employee ambassadors.

"What employees are looking for is something with meaning. What employers are looking to do is make [the experience] lasting and sustainable," says Jennifer Moss, author of Unlocking Happiness at Work and co-founder of Plasticity Labs, which offers an online workplace engagement platform. It's a win for all parties, Ms. Moss says, not to mention the schools, non-profits or social enterprises that take in the volunteers.

"There's a lot of payback," Ms. Moss says. "Sustainable global citizenry is going to be the thing that transforms our workplace."

Global software company SAP launched its social sabbatical in 2012 and has since sent more than 120 employees on volunteer assignments in 10 different countries across Asia, Africa and South America.

Kathryn Pellatt, a Vancouver-based employee with SAP's Centre of Excellence division, went to China in 2013 with a team of colleagues to help fair-trade company Buy42.com build up its online business.

"It's incredibly rewarding to see how the skill set you hone at SAP can be transferred into another market space and used to really help another business grow quickly," Ms. Pellatt says.

While the mission was to use SAP technology to help the company scale, "we're not coming at it from the point of view that everything is a nail and we have to hit it with a SAP hammer," Ms. Pellatt says.

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Since she's been back, Ms. Pellatt has moved up the ranks at SAP and also helps others get the most out of the program.

SAP has different versions of its social sabbatical, including a two-week stint for executives, assignments of four weeks for non-executives, as well as local programs combining elements of on-site and virtual volunteering for staff who aren't able to take off for weeks at a time.

SAP's goal is to increase its percentage of skills volunteering, with benefits for the overall business.

"Using your professional skills to help an NGO or a small business succeed is extremely rewarding and very impactful," says Kirsten Sutton, managing director of SAP Labs Canada.

It also helps SAP build its brand in fast-growing emerging markets such as countries in Africa.

"Our products could be successful there, but we haven't been into the market to the extent that we could be," Ms. Sutton says. "By coming in through this aspect, we extend that strategic social investment … and learn more about the market itself by helping the NGOs."

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SAP also tracks the program's performance. It says 71 per cent of participants to date have come up with a business process improvement, product or service that they have applied in their job, while another 70 per cent say their level of responsibility at the company has increased.

"Everyone finds different ways to leverage the experiences," says Mark Horoszowski, who runs Seattle-based MovingWorlds.org, which connects people who want to travel and volunteer their expertise directly with schools, non-profits and social enterprises around the world.

MovingWorlds.org started off five years ago working with individuals, but Mr. Horoszowski

said companies started to get involved. One of the partners it's allowed to name is Microsoft, which offers a program called MySkills4Afrika, where employees from around the world can volunteer in African countries.

Ricardo Wagner, a Toronto-based senior product marketing manager at Microsoft Canada, has been on the program twice; in Kigali, Rwanda, in May, 2014, and Nairobi, Kenya, last spring.

In Rwanda, he helped a local Microsoft partner sell technology to the education sector; in Kenya, he helped companies sell cloud technology to small and medium-sized businesses.

Mr. Wagner says the experiences have inspired him to take on more responsibilities and use his skills to help others.

"I really feel I can do more, that I can achieve more," says Mr. Wagner, who moved to Canada from Brazil five years ago. He's now an ambassador for Microsoft's MySkills4Afrika program. "I'm here to help people to achieve more," he says.

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