This month we are featuring the giving culture at one of the IT majors – Cognizant Technology Services through their CSR program Outreach having made a difference to more than 4,00,000 children with 45,000 volunteers clocking more than 460,000 volunteering hours.
We had the pleasure of interacting with Ms. Archana Raghuram, Global Head of Cognizant Outreach who has been leading the program right from its launch in 2007. It was interesting to know about various initiatives supported by Outreach, challenges faced to get employees involved in the CSR activities and future of giving at Cognizant.
GiveIndia: Tell us about your role and for how long have you been working with the organization?
Archana: I head Cognizant’s volunteer-led CSR program, Outreach. I’ve been with Cognizant for 17 years and have been a part of Outreach since its inception in November 2007.
GiveIndia: What are the key initiatives that Cognizant Outreach has taken up? Are there any must do activities for employees?
Archana: In the five years since its inception, Outreach, with the support of over 45,000 active volunteers, has been a catalyst in impacting the lives of 400,000 children in more than 110 schools, supporting over 1,000 infrastructure projects and clocking more than 460,000 volunteering hours.
Outreach supports educational institutions catering to underprivileged children, while engaging Cognizant employees as volunteers for projects that are close to their heart. Cognizant has adopted a participatory approach for its CSR programs. By referring and volunteering for CSR initiatives, Cognizant employees gain better understanding of the implementation and impact of those initiatives. This has also been instrumental in building a sense of social responsibility and camaraderie among Cognizant employees.
With a three-pronged approach to making an impact, Outreach focuses on creating or improving infrastructure in schools, conducting tutorials or coaching sessions in select subjects and life skills, and conducting value-added activities such as competitions to identify talent in extra-curricular activities and sports in these schools.
Here are some examples of our initiatives:
· Be A Teacher (BAT): Employees across India volunteer to take classes in English, Mathematics and Sciences in schools in their neighborhoods. Our volunteers have spent more than 100,000 hours in academic and soft skill teaching over the last two years. These regular sessions have led to a noticeable increase in the academic scores of the children.
· Outreach Scholarship Program: Run in partnership with Foundation for Excellence, the Outreach Scholarship Program aims to fund college education of meritorious students in schools supported by Outreach. Around 124 Outreach scholars from 18 schools have been identified and awarded full scholarships for the duration of their college study. Nearly 71% of these Outreach scholars are girl students and 97% of them are first-generation graduates.
TalHunt: TalHunt is an annual inter-school competition for schools supported by Outreach. This initiative provides a platform for children to showcase their talent. Outreach volunteers train children for competitions in dance, drawing, chess, carom, story-telling, quiz, and so on. In the last five years, more than 97,000 children across eight cities and two villages in India have participated in regional TalHunt events. Exposure to a wide audience and healthy competition have helped draw students out of their shells and made them more confident individuals. Helping the children win is a personal victory for the volunteers.
Beyond Volunteering – Giving
Notebook Collection Drive: It is an annual fundraiser to support school children from government schools with notebooks. Employees who are unable to take time off for volunteering due to their project deadlines or family commitments view this as a great opportunity to make an impact. Over the past five years, more than 68,000 employees have contributed to this drive. Thanks to this initiative, 200,000 students from 180 schools today have their own notebooks.
CSR activities at Outreach are completely voluntary. The goal of the program is to provide opportunities to employees to fulfill their passion to serve.
GiveIndia: Till date, over 2,300 employees from Cognizant Technology Solutions have signed up for the Payroll Giving program, contributing over Rs. 1.45 crore of funds. Do you think Payroll Giving makes for an easier way for employees to engage with the cause of giving?
Archana: Outreach is primarily a volunteering platform and funded by Cognizant. In fact, apart from the annual notebook drive fundraiser, there is no active soliciting of funds from employees. However, after our annual notebook fundraiser, many of our employees wrote to us expressing interest in contributing on a more regular basis for a variety of causes. This is when Cognizant Outreach partnered with GiveIndia to create a forum for interested employees to sign up for payroll giving.
GiveIndia: Given that employees in an IT company are working round the clock and across different continents, how easy or difficult does it become for you to get employees engaged in CSR initiatives?
Archana: The intent to give back to the communities was always there. It was only a matter of providing employees an official platform and enough opportunities to fulfill that intent. Early on, we realized the biggest challenge that an employee faced was in striking a balance between work and volunteering. Keeping this in mind, Outreach created a wide variety of initiatives that the associates could choose from.
We partnered with schools in the vicinity of our offices to enable employees to volunteer during weekdays. We have also designed entire initiatives such as ‘Be a Teacher’, which involve providing volunteering opportunities near the employees’ homes. This enables our employees to teach children in their neighborhoods over the weekend.
There are also many skill-based volunteering opportunities that cater to specific skills/interests, such as quizzing and teaching arts. Most recently, we piloted a ‘Teaching through Skype’ initiative. This eliminates the need for employees to be physically present at a given location and helps productive use of their time and interest.
Besides these volunteering initiatives, there are campaigns such as the annual notebook fund raiser, Little Gifts (Make A Wish) and the payroll giving program, which help employees experience the joy of giving.
The fact that this is a completely volunteer-led CSR program has given the Outreach community a wonderful sense of ownership. In fact, 98% of our projects are proposed and executed by volunteers. Our volunteer base currently consists of 45,000 employees across the globe.
GiveIndia: Lastly, what is the future of giving at Cognizant through Cognizant Outreach?
Archana: In the initial years, we focused on widening our reach within our organization, mainly getting the word out and building a volunteer base. We identified opportunities that let our employees volunteer in their areas of interest. Now that we have this base, we’re looking at leveraging the momentum to deepen our impact by focusing on long-term projects that will change the lives of the children we support.
According to the Annual Status of Education Report published by Pratham, an NGO that works in the field of education, more than half of all children in standard V are at least three grade levels behind where they should be in reading levels. The report reveals that in rural India, about two thirds of all children in standard V could not do simple division two years ago. The number was close to three fourths in 2012.
This was corroborated by our own preliminary assessments in the schools we support. Based on these results, our goal for the current academic year is to get every child in the schools we support to meet the basic academic requirements for each grade. This is a step towards fulfilling our long-term vision of helping students in 100 schools achieve 100% pass rate and then ensure that these students go on to graduate and get employed.