Corporate Volunteerism: An Inward Journey
Volunteering has become a commonly used corporate tool for encouraging employee growth and opening up interaction with the world beyond glass cubicles. Last month, Nichole Cirillo, director of strategic initiatives at Earthwatch participated in an online discussion for The Guardian with executives from IBM and other North American companies to explore the nature of corporate volunteer activities and discuss what Earthwatch can do to further the mission.
Nichole Cirillo is helping corporate volunteers rediscover science through Earthwatch Expeditions.
What new insight emerged from this discussion with the corporate sector?
I was happy to learn how seriously corporations take volunteering and how they’re connecting it with a whole series of performance metrics that, I don’t think, five or ten years ago you would have seen. [Earlier] what would happen is that they would give everybody half a day to go out and plant trees or paint a homeless shelter. But today, in addition to doing that, they’re looking at how this creates a better employee and how this contributes to the company’s bottom line. And that’s something we talked about during the live chat and a lot of people wanted to know more about that half of it.
What are corporations looking for from citizen science organizations like Earthwatch?
I think what we offer is a more transformative experience. We are a volunteering organization in one sense—we certainly volunteer time and effort—but ours is an inward journey as well as an outward journey. You gain as a participant just as much as you give. I think that’s what people are looking for these days in terms of volunteering. Yes, it’s hugely important to give time, but it’s also important to get something back. Employees may ask themselves: “How is this [volunteering] relevant to my business? How does this make me a better employee? How does this make me understand issues like climate change, water scarcity, and ocean health in a way that relates to the organization I work for?” And that’s something that Earthwatch is able to deliver in profound ways.
What does a company like IBM find in Earthwatch that contributes to their overall corporate social responsibility goal?
I like to say that when you are on our research projects in the field, hot and dusty or dirty and tired, a certain window opens in your mind. Most of us leave science back in high school, and that’s true even of companies that are working in technology or science; you get further and further away from the wonder of science. You get further away from why you entered into the field to begin with. I see this happen time and again when I’m in the field with people who are in incredibly powerful positions. Sitting next to a scientist in the field or in the lab, there’s this sense of wonder that their mind opens to. And there isn’t any company in the world that doesn’t have skin in the game with something like climate change. There’s always something in climate change for you—there’s some way you can act and something you can take a responsible approach towards. Even for freshwater, every industry uses it. If you are a bank, you may utilize it for operations or you may lend to people who have big uses of water. That’s the good and the bad of these big global issues—they touch everybody.
What was one of the most striking questions you were asked about Earthwatch?
I think people don’t always know what we do, and they’re unfamiliar with citizen science as we know it. They’re more used to the traditional model of volunteering, which says, “You’ll help in the process; you’ll help us get it done.” They’re less used to our model, which is, “You’re so important to this process; we couldn’t do this without you.” The fact that they are integral to our work is new to them.
Read the article and the live chat on The Guardian for more information.