July 18, 2002
Supporting Science, Supporting Sustainability
by Anne Moore Odell
Earthwatch Institute's Corporate Fellowship Program places corporate employees in the field with
top scientists for the benefit of both the environment and the sponsoring companies.
The Earthwatch Institute is an
international nonprofit organization founded on the idea that a hands-on approach is the best way
to learn science. By bringing together people with diverse backgrounds to work on scientific
expeditions, the Institute believes more people will be able to understand difficult environmental
and social issues.
Earthwatch Institute plays an important role in creating
dialogue among scientists, environmental organizations, businesses, and the public. Many large
corporations, such as Ford Motor
Company (ticker: F) and Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum (RD),
support the Institute's efforts. One unique opportunity Earthwatch offers businesses is its
Corporate Fellowship Program, where select employees can join an Earthwatch expedition. Not only
are employees given a rewarding experience on a scientific expedition, the corporations also reap
Earthwatch has helped its corporate partners improve staff motivation,
environmental awareness, and employee loyalty. Shawn Fitzgibbons, director of corporate programs
at Earthwatch, explained, "For a company seeking industry leadership and enhanced profitability
through CSR strategies, it is critical that increased emphasis be placed on the development of an
energetic, innovative, and dedicated staff."
"A sponsor company agrees to support a
specified number of fellowships for employees to work on Earthwatch research expeditions," said Mr.
Fitzgibbons. "Companies provide Earthwatch with what is essentially a per capita grant. The funds
primarily go toward the research project, and a smaller portion covers the employees' expenses and
Earthwatch project management." Company employees apply through a competitive application process,
and Earthwatch generally makes the selections.
Companies often offer their employees
expeditions that relate to the company's core business. Depending on the company's goals,
employees might work in groups concerned with team building and employee morale development. Or
employees might work with other Earthwatch volunteers. Mr. Fitzgibbons said, "We work with
companies to design a business-based strategy for employee education, recruitment, and/or
retention. At a minimum, we need approximately 3-6 months prior to the chosen expeditions to plan
One example of a company that has greatly benefited from its partnership
with Earthwatch is Rio
Tinto (RTP), a large mining company with a checkered human rights and environmental record. Rio
Tinto sends twenty-four employees a year on Earthwatch research projects that examine tropical
forest issues. As Mr. Fitzgibbons explained, "Rio Tinto is working simultaneously to raise its
level of environmental awareness, develop skills and knowledge relevant to environmental risk
management, and add value to the company brand."
Rio Tinto Head of External Affairs Andrew
Vickerman said, "Rio Tinto is aware that the wider world in which it operates has expectations
beyond the traditional considerations of business. It is no longer enough for a company to be
legal and profitable; we must recognize that we live in a constantly changing social environment."
Earthwatch's corporate fellowship program is growing quickly. This year it received a
five year, $15 million commitment from HSBC Group to involve 2,000 of their staff on Earthwatch
research expeditions. Starbucks
Corporation (SBUX) is in the midst of launching a program that they intend to expand over the
next several years. The Earthwatch Institute Corporate Advisory Council, a group of senior
corporate executives, is working with Earthwatch to help companies use the experience to
successfully design and execute sustainable business strategies. In addition, the Council is
working with Earthwatch to develop a corporate training program based on the Earthwatch Corporate
For businesses that want to support global sustainability while
keeping an eye on their bottom line, Earthwatch's Corporate Fellowship Program offers real results.
Eighty-eight percent of polled employees feel more pride in their company as a result of their
partnership and 93% come away with a greater understanding of environmental issues. With programs
uniting businesses, educators, the public, scientists and local peoples in over forty countries,
Earthwatch is truly global is its reach as it works to improve understanding of natural and