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More Than PR

Some people view the charitable work of pharma companies as nothing more than a public relations exercise, but Rob Smith, Senior Director of Corporate Social Responsibility and President of Eli Lilly’s Lilly Foundation, believes that CSR is about actions, not words.

What is your role at Eli Lilly? 

In July this year, I celebrated my 21st anniversary with Lilly. My career started in finance where I had a number of jobs, including working in investor relations, which was a great role to better understand our company, industry, and what shareholders expected of us. I have been in this role, leading CSR and the Lilly Foundation, since 2005. We have worked to make our efforts more global and more strategic, including the philanthropy of the Lilly Foundation. Our areas of focus are global health, strengthening communities, especially our headquarters community of Indianapolis, and employee engagement.

How are you improving global health?

One prominent example has been our work on multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB). In the late 1990s, we began working with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health (PIH) to provide greater access to two older antibiotics, both off patent, for MDR-TB. PIH had independently seen that these two drugs, in combination with other medicines, proved highly effective in treating MDR-TB in a study they conducted. What began as a straightforward donation program evolved into a comprehensive, multiyear collaboration to improve health outcomes for those suffering with the disease.

A key part of the partnership involved the transfer of manufacturing technology and expertise. The motivation? We knew it would not be good for the global health community to be reliant largely on one high-quality supplier for the two medicines, so we worked to transfer our technical capabilities to a number of companies worldwide – particularly in locations where the disease was most prevalent.

The Lilly MDR-TB Partnership has been a long-term collaboration with nearly 40 partners and combined investment of nearly $200 million since 2003. I am proud to say that this work has led to improved diagnosis and treatment of MDR-TB. Regarding our technology transfer, we learned many lessons during this process and wanted to share them with others by writing a white paper (

Going forward, we will expand our work in global health, especially diabetes and cancer. We will also continue our long-standing work with the International Diabetes Federation on the Life for Child Program. As part of this program, we are donating about 250,000 vials of insulin every year to help around 13,000 children with type 1 diabetes in dozens of countries. We also will build on our long-term partnership with AMPATH in Western Kenya to help with their efforts to improve cancer screenings, diagnosis and care.

You also do a lot of work closer to home in Indianapolis…

That’s right. Our corporate headquarters are in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, along with 25 percent of our workforce, and our largest R&D footprint in the world. We have been involved in helping our home community for over a century and that continues to this day. We view this as the right thing to do, but also good for our business. For example, recruiting and retaining great talent is easier if we are operating in a strong, vibrant community. We have many things happening here in Indianapolis, but our main focus is on expanding access to high-quality education opportunities for children from low-income families. One of the guiding principles behind our philanthropy is that we use our resources and position in the community to rally others to join us. By leveraging resources from both private and public sectors, we can have a greater, more sustainable impact. 

For example, we rallied the Indianapolis community to invest more in early childhood education. We committed $2 million from our Foundation, raised another $8 million in the business community, and through communications and advocacy, helped pass a local ordinance investing $20 million in public funds to support this effort. Along with leveraging state investments, we now have a five-year, $50-million program that is supporting 1,600 3-4-year-olds from vulnerable circumstances to attend high-quality pre-kindergarten.

How important is local CSR?

First, this sounds simplistic, but we believe that you cannot be a good global corporate citizen if you are not a leader in your “backyard.” Beyond that, working in our home city is a business priority. We are a large firm in a relatively small city and we’re competing for talent with organizations in San Francisco, San Diego, Boston, New York, and international locations like London and Hong Kong. Attracting employees is much easier if we’re operating in the context of a strong and vibrant community.

We’ve shown that companies like ours can have a great impact in home communities. Lilly is, generally speaking, held in very high regard in Indianapolis – people trust us and are willing to follow our lead if we want to work on an issue to move our community forward. I think pharma companies can sometimes be treated with skepticism or distrust, but because of our 140-year history in the city, we aren’t viewed with that same suspicion. People here know us not as faceless corporate “giants,” but as people.

How do you engage employees in CSR?

We have a number of employee engagement programs. For example, our “Connecting Hearts Abroad” program involves sending employees to communities in need around the globe. Since 2011, we’ve sent almost 1,000 people on two-week volunteer assignments.

The assignments are quite varied; we work with our non-profit partners – including those who are associated with our global health programs – to identify needs requiring specific skills (healthcare, IT, pharmacy, communications, and so on). We then ask Lilly employees to apply for the program and match the projects with the appropriate skillset. In addition to these skill-based placements, there are also a number of general volunteer slots that are available to anyone. It is gratifying that nearly every volunteer who takes part in the program returns saying it was the experience of a lifetime. We also encourage returning volunteers to share their experiences with other staff, or organizations and community groups they might be involved with externally. When you have employees at all levels of the company talking about what they did and what they learned with stakeholders, the reputation of the company can only be enhanced, but in a truly authentic way – as opposed to things that might be more impersonal, like a corporate press release.

What is the key to successful long-term CSR?

Is starts with a commitment to collaboration and then how a company, over time, can deploy a comprehensive set of assets and capabilities in addition to philanthropy. Moreover, while this may sound obvious, it is critical that companies engage with a sense of humility. The challenges we face are complicated and sustainable solutions simply do not reside within one organization. Being open to new ideas and adaptive strategies is absolutely essential.

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About the Author
James Strachan

Over the course of my Biomedical Sciences degree it dawned on me that my goal of becoming a scientist didn’t quite mesh with my lack of affinity for lab work. Thinking on my decision to pursue biology rather than English at age 15 – despite an aptitude for the latter – I realized that science writing was a way to combine what I loved with what I was good at.


From there I set out to gather as much freelancing experience as I could, spending 2 years developing scientific content for International Innovation, before completing an MSc in Science Communication. After gaining invaluable experience in supporting the communications efforts of CERN and IN-PART, I joined Texere – where I am focused on producing consistently engaging, cutting-edge and innovative content for our specialist audiences around the world.

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