February 22, 2020

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Earthwatch Ambassadors: Finding the CR Sweet Spot with Millennials

How do you engage millennials? Expand skills-based volunteering.


By Deborah Holmes, EY Americas Director, Corporate Responsibility

At EY, skills-based volunteering is at the core of our CR strategy and is key to the design of our programs. We recently welcomed back our EY Americas Earthwatch Ambassadors from their one-week expeditions to Brazil and Costa Rica, and it’s been rewarding to see that our Gen Y’ers view Earthwatch as much more than a “volunteer vacation.” Millennials have become among our strongest advocates for the professional development that can be gained through short, sharp CR experiences like an Earthwatch expedition.

When we launched this international skills-based volunteering program in 2009, we envisioned it as a way to engage EY’s small but passionate community of environmentalists in our corporate responsibility efforts. Since then, we’ve seen a benefit to sending top Gen Y professionals with a variety of skills and backgrounds on Earthwatch expeditions—and not just those individuals with “green” in their veins. In addition to scaling Earthwatch to meet the steady stream of applicants, we’ve been able to mainstream the program so that high-performing millennials from across the Americas look to it as a valued global mobility experience, which also gives them an opportunity to make a difference and develop leadership skills.

In the Beginning: Developing Green Thinkers and Doers

Each summer, teams comprised of early-career professionals from member firms in the US, Canada, Israel, Mexico, Central and South America travel to the rainforests of Brazil and Costa Rica to help Earthwatch scientists gather data and use workplace skills to assist local, small businesses in improving practices such as finance/cash flow, marketing and reporting.

In 2009, our first team of 11 EY Ambassadors all had strong personal and professional connections to environmental sustainability – and that was by design. That inaugural team included such Group at Waterfall_Juliana, Brian, Caitrin, Gillian, Maria, Jason, Nichole, Matt (in hat), Ryan & Ivonnepeople as:

  • Dominick Brook, who was then a recent hire to the Tax practice with an interest in “green tax” issues.
  • Lisa Hinton, a facilities manager in Minneapolis, had been instrumental in making the office there more environmentally responsible through her involvement in EcoCare, the EY volunteer network committed to the environment.
  • Katherine Hammack, a Sustainability Services senior manager and the leader for the first expedition, was an expert in LEED (she has since gone on to take a very senior post in the US Army, leading sustainability in the military).

In each case the Earthwatch experience solidified these professionals’ environmental commitment and broadened perspectives. Dominick, for example, explained,

“I became interested in incentives for sustainability after law school. In my day job, I help businesses implement and reduce the cost of their sustainability strategies, but through volunteering, I was living a sustainability strategy and was able to bring that understanding to my clients.”

Scaling and Refocusing to Engage Gen Y Professionals

In 2010, we opened up applications to all eligible professionals below the manager/assistant director level. We expanded to Brazil in 2011 and now have 30 participants from across the Americas every year. In 2013, more than 250 people applied for those 30 positions.

There’s no doubt – early career professionals at EY are intrigued by the opportunity to contribute to sustainability efforts in the rain forests of Latin America. This is a generation that gets the importance of recycling; that understands their own carbon footprint. But it’s also a generation that is hungry for the opportunity to gain international experience, to build their network within EY and to step up as leaders early in their career. Five years of Earthwatch expeditions have helped us to evolve the program in a way that strengthens its impact as a talent development and retention program. I’d like to highlight three key elements to take CR programs beyond a “volunteer vacation” to a leadership development tool:

  • Building high-performing teams. In 2009 and 2010, we asked a leader within Sustainability Services to serve as a leader for each Earthwatch expedition – we thought this would be a way to engage these key executives in CR and connect them to younger talent. While the leader/team interaction during the expeditions was very positive, we didn’t feel like the commitment extended once the leaders were back in the states. So in 2011, we took a different approach, and began asking Earthwatch Ambassador program alumni (all early career professionals) to apply for the returning team leader role. This has proven to be extremely effective – because it has created a highly respected and substantial leadership opportunity for high performers who are millennials.
  • Developing executive presence. One challenge many Gen Y professionals have is building their ability to communicate and present to executive audiences. Deep in the rain forest, Earthwatch offers hands-on opportunities to work with senior leaders on real business problems. In Brazil, they have worked with small businesses to improve operations. In Costa Rica, our people have helped the Tarrazu Coffee Cooperative with pricing, sustainability reporting and other issues.

    For many of our professionals, this is the first time they have the chance to interview a senior executive or present findings to business leaders. In the words of Andrea Torrico, a senior in the Tax practice, “Working with Earthwatch, I was able to meet with management and the board of directors at the coffee cooperative, and interact with them on a unique level that I hadn't before at EY. That’s really provided me with a foundation on how to work with leaders at EY and my clients.”
  • Expanding global networks. A key element of EY’s business strategy is serving global clients through highly integrated teams. The Earthwatch Ambassador experience is a microcosm of a global cross-service line engagement. Each expedition includes members from all of EY’s service lines, as well as every geographic region in the Americas. The opportunity to network with colleagues builds an awareness of the diversity of EY and gives our people a stronger sense of connection to one other and the organization.

Assoil samples_RtoL_Loxton, Gerland, Worth, Planishek, Rey, Mizuno EY’s Americas Director of Corporate Responsibility, I’ve found that millennials are passionate about the professional development opportunities that can be gained from skills-based volunteering. What’s more, these future leaders recognize the importance of corporate responsibility and advocate EY’s vision of “Building a better working world.” With our EY Earthwatch Ambdassadors program, we feel we’ve found that sweet spot with millennials, five years in the making.

About the Author:

Deborah K. Holmes established and leads the Corporate Responsibility function in the Americas for EY, formerly Ernst & Young. Focused on skill-based volunteerism in the "3Es" (education, entrepreneurship and environmental sustainability), CR at EY enables employees to build skills while making a difference in communities across the Americas. Ms. Holmes joined EY in 1996 to direct the firm’s development and advancement of women, work that led to Ms. Holmes being named a World Economic Forum Global Leader for Tomorrow. Ms. Holmes earned her B.A. and J.D. from Harvard University. She lives in NYC with her college sweetheart and her two teenaged sons.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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