Watching our employee environmental volunteer program grow

Our annual Earthwatch-Ernst & Young Ambassadors Program has something in common with my garden – it is vibrant and fast-growing. It is also an integral part of the seasonal rhythm at Ernst & Young, but not in exactly the way I had envisioned when we planted the first seeds over four years ago.

Yes, our people have contributed to the Earthwatch Institute’s environmental field research in Brazil and Costa Rica.

Yes, they have used their professional skills to help local businesses, farming cooperatives and not-for-profits with their business practices.

Yes, they come back to the office energized and more committed than ever to “walking the talk” on sustainability.

All of that was part of the plan. What I did not foresee, but have come to value greatly, is the ways these diverse teams of Ambassadors have built relationships, adopted new perspectives and demonstrated for all of us what it means to expand their global mindset and become inclusive leaders. In addition to working in an unfamiliar environment where the culture and language is different, the Ambassadors have the challenge of coming together for a week and quickly learning to build on each other’s strengths, and to take advantage of the creativity and skills of each multinational, cross-service line team to deliver meaningful skills-based projects to their local clients.

In 2009, we launched our first Earthwatch-Ernst & Young Ambassador expedition to the Tarrazú region of Costa Rica and enabled a select group of professionals to participate in a skills-based volunteering experience and gain hands-on experience in sustainability. By focusing on early-career professionals and offering a one-week experience, we differentiated this program from our other successful international volunteering program, the Corporate Responsibility Fellows program, which is open to people at the manager level or higher and sends them on a seven-week assignment with an entrepreneur in Latin America.

In 2010, we opened the application pool to eligible employees from across the Americas (U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America), and Israel, and doubled the size of the program, sending two teams to Costa Rica to conduct research on coffee farming methods and to assist the Tarrazú coffee growers cooperative with business planning. In 2011, we sent our first team to Brazil’s Rio Cachoeira area where they conducted field research and assisted a local honey cooperative with cash flow and marketing. And this past year, we tripled the size of the program, sending two teams to the Guaraqueçaba region of Brazil to assist with research on biodiversity and work with an ecotourism cooperative, and sending one team to Costa Rica to continue our skills-based work with the coffee cooperative. All told, more than 70 Earthwatch-Ernst & Young Ambassadors have participated in expeditions over the course of four years.

With the Earthwatch-Ernst & Young Ambassadors program, we have found the sweet spot at the intersection of employee interest, people strategy and corporate responsibility priorities. This past spring, my team read through more than 250 applications to select the Ambassadors for the 27 open spots (the three team leaders are chosen through a different process).

Ambassadors rave about the program within Ernst & Young and externally. Byron Chard, a staff accountant from Canada, blogged for the Vancouver Sun. Andrea Torrico, a Tax senior from Atlanta, was recently interviewed by AccountingWEB, a key trade for our industry. Matt Collins, an Assurance manager from Phoenix, was featured in a story. Our success with the Earthwatch Ambassadors in the Americas has also led Ernst & Young to launch similar expeditions in our Europe, Asia-Pacific and Japan regions.[MV1]

Not just a volunteer opportunity, Earthwatch is one of the key mobility experiences available to our professionals. My colleagues in the People Team understand that short immersion trips offer cultural awareness, experiential learning, networking, and team building opportunities for our people that are integral to their growth as global leaders.

And from a corporate responsibility perspective, we continue to instill a socially responsible mindset in our people by getting them out from behind their computers and into the world where the environment is not an ideal, but something that directly impacts the livelihood of communities on the local and broader level. We’re proud of what our Earthwatch Ambassadors contribute in the field, but we are even prouder of their potential to contribute as environmental advocates when they return.