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Pfizer Volunteers Reach All Corners Of The World

Pfizer Inc.'s Volunteers Reach All Corners of the World

Pharmacist Thomas Buckley -- volunteering in 2006 at the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, Thailand -- did not dream his work would soon make a difference to the biggest flood of refugees from Burma in decades, the Burmese streaming into Thailand after September's anti-government protests.

But the sinks that Buckley installed in the clinic and hand-washing routines he taught health workers undoubtedly have limited the spread of infection among refugee-patients. Buckley taught clinicians, many of whom are earlier migrants from Burma with no formal medical training, to wear gloves and dispose of needles and medical waste safely. He collected donated drugs and organized an outpatient pharmacy.

Buckley's employer, pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer Inc., paid him his usual salary during the six-month volunteer stint and held his job for him in Connecticut, where he studies medical outcomes of patients on prescribed drugs.

At Mae Tao Clinic, Buckley met a variety of demands, at times relying on computer connections to Pfizer colleagues and the wider U.S. medical community for advice. Jennifer Jirotto of Connecticut Children's Medical Center answered his questions about pediatrics. University of Connecticut pharmacy professor Jeffrey Aeschlimann sent him lecture notes on antibiotics. When Buckley posted a journal entry on Pfizer's Web site that told of poor-quality shoes worn by local runners training for the Bangkok Marathon, friends and colleagues sent 150 pairs of new running shoes.

Increasingly, publicly traded U.S. companies "donate" skilled workers like Buckley to nonprofit groups across country borders. According to Robert Mallett, president of the Pfizer Foundation, corporate philanthropy needs to impress more than just shareholders: It should win the hearts of employees, customers, critics, journalists and government officials. Pfizer spends $1.7 billion per year in product donations and grants, but such donations, while important, do not always win hearts like people do.

The Brookings Institution estimates that 40 percent of major corporations support employee volunteering around the world -- either by having employees based in other countries volunteer locally or by sending employees abroad to volunteer.

In 2008, IBM will send 600 employees to volunteer in emerging markets, according to a recent Brookings report.

Some firms involve customers and business partners too. In 2007, Seattle-based Starbucks Corporation extended a program that places employees as volunteers in environmental projects around the world -- 20 customers joined Starbucks workers to help at a coffee farm in Costa Rica.

New Hampshire-based bootmaker Timberland Company is working with a nonprofit called Green Network to mobilize Timberland workers, customers and business partners to plant 1 million trees in China before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

According to the World Health Organization, 4 million health care workers are needed to fill gaps in developing countries -- not only doctors and nurses, but financial officers, pharmacists, marketing specialists and other professionals.

Such shortages inspired Pfizer's initiative, according to Rekha Chalasani, a manager for the "Global Health Fellows" program. Under the program, Buckley and 127 other employees have been sent for three to six months to projects in 31 countries.

"The demand is astronomical," Chalasani said. "For every one employee we have sent to a [nonprofit] partner, the partner has wanted three." To help meet the demand, other medical firms -- like New Jersey-based Becton Dickinson & Company -- have modeled programs after Pfizer's.

While helping hospitals in Cambodia, health departments in Kenya and clinics in Thailand, Pfizer also helps its corporate reputation. Mallett calls the program a "humanizing influence" on critics who believe pharmaceutical companies are greedy because they patent medicine, thereby making it costly for the poor.

Pfizer volunteers return with knowledge of emerging markets that can benefit their careers and the company. Dannette Hill, a human resources specialist, stays in touch with economists at Kenya's Ministry of Health with whom she worked while helping with a reorganization of health facilities. She told USINFO that in rural areas of Kenya, "there is no helicopter to take you to the hospital if you are sick. If health care is substandard, that is all you have. Sickness means you can't work. Not working means you can't live." Hill feels less entitled since she began volunteering.

Such experiences inspire Pfizer employees to continue to do social work around the world and boosts their morale and that of their colleagues, Mallett said.

According to Buckley, who worked at Mae Tao Clinic, "They said it would be a life-changing experience, and that's a total understatement. My vacations will be to go back there to volunteer now."


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