Eight Principal Financial Group employees recently returned from Pune, India, where rather than building wells or distributing food, they put their respective professional skills to work helping small and medium-sized businesses to expand their companies. 

Word must have gotten around the water coolers at Principal on how rewarding the experience was. More than 140 employees have already applied for next year’s international visit, says Dan Houston, the company’s chairman and CEO. Houston recently provided some insights on Principal’s approach to corporate giving on a global scale during an international summit for businesses hosted by the Des Moines Rotary Club. 

“The idea was to help these businesses to be more independent,” Houston told about 75 participants during the seminar held at UnityPoint Health’s Education & Research Center. 

He recalled that seeing the extreme poverty in India during his first visit years ago profoundly affected him. Having grown up in urban Texas near downtown Houston, “I knew what [being] poor looked like, and then I went to India. I said, ‘No, I wasn’t even close to understanding what ‘poor’ really, really looks like.’ ” 

Principal is keenly aware of the importance of making life better for people in less developed areas of the world, Houston said. Its global footprint now spans more than 80 countries, including India, where Principal has about 1,400 employees in Pune — a city of 3.4 million residents. 

Although Principal’s foundation provides about $8 million annually to benefit some 230 communities around the world, providing hands-on assistance in a way that helps people become more self-sufficient can provide far greater reach than writing a check, he said. 

Developing clear goals and starting small helped DuPont Pioneer, now Corteva Agriscience, to build a successful program, said Paul Schickler, its former president.  

When Pioneer was just starting its international giving programs 20 years ago, partnerships between corporations and nonprofits on the ground were “very uncommon,” he recalled. The company started out small with six to 12 projects a year, after bringing employees together from across the organization to determine how much and where it would spend on international, sustainable development. 

Now the company is providing international service at a much higher level, with alignment with other for-profit corporations as well as nonprofits on the ground, in coordination with the countries that are being served, Schickler said. 

In the Philippines, for instance, Corteva helped develop a program to reforest mountainsides to eliminate erosion that was fouling water supplies from runoff in the drainage canals. “All the parties were benefiting, because we created a clean water supply for the residents, gained the environmental benefits and also got a reliable water supply for our seed production business,” he said. 

Another bioscience leader, Kemin, is working with the World Food Program to provide food at Syrian refugee camps in the Middle East. A delegation from the company led by CEO Chris Nelson recently toured the kitchens at the camp, which uses an iris scanner system provided by the United Nations to keep track of all the refugees’ payments and records. “It was easy for Kemin to get involved with the World Food Program because this is an area we’re already knowledgeable in,” said Lauren Burt, Kemin’s worldwide communications manager. 

That’s a key lesson for companies seeking to launch global partnerships with nonprofits: “Lead from your area of strength, and allow others to lead from their areas of strength,” said Laura Asiala, a senior fellow with Pyxera Global, an organization that was established in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush as the Citizens Democracy Corps to assist residents of the former Soviet Union following the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Principal will use one of its strengths, improving financial literacy, to benefit about 50,000 young people in 10 selected locations around the world over the next five years, Houston said. And it’s not going to be a “drive-by” approach. 

“This program will be very hands-on, using people who are subject matter experts, as well as technology, to see if we can get truly measurable movement around the world on some really important matters related to saving for long-term needs, oftentimes retirement,” he said. “This is going to be a major project on our part, and we’re excited about getting it kicked off.”