Corporate 'Peace Corps': Companies Now Lend Employees

Solveig Haupt's work environment changed dramatically three months ago.

She left the confines of her New York City office for a crowded hospital in southern India to volunteer her marketing and management skills as a Pfizer fellow.

"The staff is very much involved in everyday tasks, leaving them little time to plan, think and structure," Haupt said. "This is where I see my role and contribution."

Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company, is among the growing number of U.S. firms like UPS, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Cisco that have expanded their philanthropic efforts internationally by offering more than money and products. They now lend their own employees.

"In the past five years, there has been a burst of interest for international fellowships," said Jennifer Anastasoff, chief executive officer of Building Blocks International, a nonprofit organization that advises companies in developing corporate service fellowships. In the past 30 years, 2,100 employees have participated in what some call the 'Corporate Peace Corps.' She wants to double the number in the next five years.

Matching Up

Haupt's expertise made for a perfect match at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, in the state of Tamil Nadu in India. The hospital is a nonprofit organization that cares for 4,500 outpatients, runs clinics in the neighboring villages, and trains doctors and nurses. With most patients unable to pay, the 67-ward hospital campus relies on higher-paying customers and donations. When the hospital posted a job ad looking for a volunteer to help with aid development in its public relations office, Pfizer chose Haupt from its qualifying pool of fellows as the point person.

"Originally we thought with our expertise, laboratory help would be most important, but we found out that more general business skills have been equally valuable," said Paula Luff, senior director of international philanthropy at Pfizer.

Pfizer sends about 30 to 40 fellows a year. Interested employees must have worked at least five years with Pfizer and pass a rigorous screening process before being chosen to represent the company abroad, Luff said.

"This is not just philanthropy, it's considered an honor," she said.

The program has evolved over time. Originally, the pharmaceutical company sent fellows to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with whom they had partnerships, but now they match people with NGOs that have posted job openings, so that there is a specific assignment.

In addition to paying the employee his or her full salary, benefits are paid in full and the person's job awaits them upon their return, she explained.

Luff sees the program as a way for the company to show off another of its many dimensions.

"Fellows are seen as ambassadors not just to promote Pfizer -- they're also putting a human face on a big company," she said.

Full-Time Volunteering on the Job

Strategy may also play a part in the recent global push for corporate fellowships. It's in every company's best interest to build relationships on the ground with all emerging markets, Anastasoff said.

As for the employees, most of them seek significance in their professional lives, she said. "There comes a point in a person's career when they want more than the next paycheck or the next title."

After the devastating tsunami last year in Southeast Asia, Haupt felt like she wanted to contribute to a greater cause. Not wanting to quit her job, the fellowship program allowed her to fulfill her personal goal without sacrificing her career.

At first, the Indian hospital seemed like utter chaos. Her new office resembled a crowded subway platform at rush hour all day, every day, she said. Since the nurses cannot pay attention to the teeming numbers of patients, most bring family members to take care of them, to fetch water at the well or prepare food.

Once she settled in, she realized that her skills came in handy.

"I am very happy to see that one doesn't need to be a scientist or a doctor to help," Haupt said. So far, she's assessed the hospital's fundraising activities and mapped out a way to keep track of donors and fund targets as well as implement corporate sponsorships.

Win-Win Situation

Although her stint in India lasts three months, Haupt believes her contributions will have a lasting effect. "I will leave my assignment with some measurable results, but more importantly, I may have planted a seed that will only flower when the time is right," she said.

Anastasoff agrees. In her opinion, the corporate volunteer reaps as many benefits as the NGO or host institution.

"I realized that technical capacity in the short term is important but in the long term, it's the contacts, the relationships and the experience of the employee on the ground that will help to build responsible business leaders," she said. She's banking on the fact that corporate fellows will become more aware of developing countries' needs and business practices, balancing out the haves and the have-nots.

In Haupt's case, aside from mastering the dizzying street traffic (cattle, cars, buses, trucks, mopeds and bicycles all share the same road) and steering clear of lurking cobras, she said it's been a two-way learning process from the get-go.

When she wanted to invite former patients from the surrounding area to showcase the hospital's outreach program at a ceremony, the plugged-in Haupt who usually doesn't leave home without her Blackberry and cell phone had to go door-to-door to invite the cardiac patients in person, because none of them had a phone.

The experience highlighted the challenges and priorities of providing health care in other parts of the world, she said. It also tested her own resourcefulness.

"I have learned to operate with much less back-office support, take charge and adapt, all the while admiring the Indians' pragmatic approach to life."

For more on becoming a corporate service fellow or getting your company to start a fellowship program Click here.