GSK program lets employees tackle global health issues through volunteerism

lfinaldi@newsobserver.comJuly 6, 2013 

Lynda Bryant-Comstock has spent most of her 21-year career at GlaxoSmithKline on the development side rather than in the field. As director of health care reform strategy and planning for the pharmaceutical giant’s Research Triangle Park office, she has focused most of her energy on identifying various health care markets – not visiting them herself.

But about a year ago, her company offered her the opportunity to shift gears entirely. GSK flew her to the Maputo, Mozambique, office of Save the Children, where she helped with development and got a hands-on look at life in the African country.

“I was able to see how important the medicine is for malaria, for HIV. … I saw how moms who lived in one-room grass huts clutched their little vaccine cards with their babies and would stay in line just to get that vaccine,” Bryant-Comstock said. She returned to GSK’s RTP office six months later with a renewed love for her job.

Bryant-Comstock was one of the 100 GSK employees who participated in last year’s installment of the company’s PULSE Volunteer Partnership program, which matches employees with 46 nonprofits in 35 countries to help address global health issues and a host of other challenges – everything from drug research to internal corporate development. The company launched PULSE in 2009 after then-new CEO Andrew Witty announced that GSK would expand its philanthropic focus. This year, PULSE will include 11 employees from the London-based company’s U.S. headquarters in RTP.

“In these difficult economic times, a lot of companies were cutting back on philanthropic work,” said Ahsiya Mencin, the PULSE program’s director. “The only way we would drag ourselves out … was to ramp up the volunteer opportunities available to our employees.”

GSK has about 96,000 employees around the world. The PULSE staff chooses 100 workers out of about 140 applicants to participate in the $5 million program, and matches them with nonprofits based on preferred geographic location, as well as the needs of the nonprofit. Employees work as long as six months at these organizations while receiving the same salary from GSK.

“Employees that go on PULSE might have exposure to that way of doing things and getting new ideas,” Mencin said. “They can bring back that energy and that increased engagement and morale.”

Nonprofit job turnover

GSK, which has about 4,500 workers in RTP and Zebulon, is part of a small but growing segment of corporate America that is providing much-needed staffing help for nonprofits.

The nonprofit sector has experienced high job turnover and shallow pools of qualified applicants due to the challenges of raising money in a tough economy, according to a study in January by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, called “Under Developed.”

“You might need nine people to do a job, but you only really can afford three,” said Nora Silver, director of the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “You may not be able to compete with the salaries that companies are hiring marketing professionals at.”

A study in 2012 by CDC Development Solutions, a Washington-based nonprofit that designs international corporate volunteer programs, found the number of employees sent annually on corporate volunteer programs has increased from 375 in 2008 to 1,700 last year.

The benefits of business-nonprofit programs are twofold, CDS spokeswoman Katie Levey said. They give nonprofits exposure to more corporate-centered ways of thinking, and they help businesses build direct relationships in emerging countries around the world. The programs “provide both the public sector and emerging markets a perspective in business framework and the business way of life,” Levey said.

Pfizer, the New York City-based pharmaceutical giant, has sent more than 300 workers to improve health services in 45 different countries through its Global Health Fellows Program since 2003.

In John Deere’s leadership development program, the company identifies employees with high potential and sends them in groups of 10 on monthlong agricultural development missions everywhere from India to Brazil to New Orleans.

At IBM, which has thousands of workers in RTP, employees who show leadership potential can take part in a variety of volunteer programs, including the company’s Corporate Service Corps. The program sends groups of 12 to 15 to countries around the world to help emerging markets move forward in terms of economic development. Since its launch in 2008, IBM has sent 2,400 of its best employees to 34 countries; that figure includes 50 employees from the Triangle.

‘Wonderful relationship’

What sets GSK apart from the rest, Mencin said, is that it’s the only company in the world that sends 100 employees around the world for six months. And sometimes the company’s volunteers don’t have to go far to find a nonprofit to assist.

The Community Health Coalition in Durham has two full-time employees, one part-timer and volunteers. The nonprofit, which is focused on the elimination of health disparities in African-Americans, lacked a concrete business model until its first PULSE volunteer, Renetta Mills, arrived last year to help develop an organizational chart. During her time at Community Health Coalition, Mills developed that chart and hired people to fill vacant positions.

“She worked with our organization to help us to be business efficient,” said Elsie Leak of CHC. “She looked at positions and job descriptions, and figured out an organizational chart that would align us more and allow us to have more efficient operations. It was a wonderful, wonderful relationship.”

At Urban Ministries in Raleigh, PULSE volunteer Tim Jensen, who works in early stage drug discovery, will take on a more developmental role as he helps the nonprofit become Medicaid-eligible. He started work last month and is getting his hands dirty in all aspects of the operation.

“I think if I could get (Urban Ministries) Medicaid-certified …, if I could get that in place and get people comfortable, I would be extremely satisfied,” he said.

Finaldi: 919-829-4582 or

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