A Vision of a Fairer World

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-02-01-2021, Volume 41, Issue 2

Melissa Thompson, Alcon’s head of global corporate social responsibility, discusses her career commitment to CSR and how COVID-19 has impacted the organization’s efforts to improve access to eye care around the globe.

Melissa Thompson leads Alcon’s global philanthropic efforts to increase access to quality eye care. She oversees annual product and equipment donations valued at $63 million and an annual grant budget of $4 million. Joining Alcon in 2015, she was appointed president of Alcon Cares and the Alcon Foundation in 2016. Over the last five years, she has identified and developed corporate giving programs that seek to transform access to eye care in underserved communities around the world, from large US cities to remote villages in low- and middle-income countries. Additionally, she sits on the Board of Trustees of Helen Keller International, supporting efforts to save and improve the sight and lives of vulnerable people by combating the causes and consequences of blindness, poor health and malnutrition.

These current responsibilities seem quite a long way from the focus of Thompson’s first roles in corporate communications in the hospitality sector, beginning as a communications manager for the American Hotel and Lodging Association in 1989. But, as she points out, corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been an increasingly important part of her career for over 20 years now. As vice president, corporate communications for Interstate Hotels & Resorts, for example, Thompson created and implemented the company’s first structured corporate philanthropy program, funding housing, education, and health programs, and introducing opportunities for employee volunteerism. In her subsequent communications role for the O’Charley’s restaurant chain, she was responsible for maximizing the impact of the company’s philanthropic contributions by creating a customer-focused promotion to support the Second Harvest Food Bank.

By 2010, Thompson had two tempting offers on the table. Both roles were in external communications; both had opportunities for crisis management and, importantly, community work. One offer was from a global hotel company; the other was from the contract research organization, Covance. “The hotel job really was appealing because I had been in hospitality my entire career and I loved that industry,” says Thompson. “I loved the energy of it, I loved the people, and it was what I knew.” But she thought back to what she had learned in school and during her career so far: if you have curiosity, it can be applied to any industry. “I decided to put that theory to the test and see how well I could adapt my experience, my learnings, and my professional background to an entirely new industry.” She took the Covance job.

Another thing that pulled Thompson toward Covance was the opportunity to start work straight away on establishing a new philanthropic program. Covance was at that time winding up a CARE project combating malnutrition in children in Rwanda, which had been very successful in impacting the lives of thousands of kids. As that program was reaching its end, Thompson was tasked with selecting the next initiative and introducing it to the organization. Her first month in the role, she says, was “a little dizzying,” but she was inquisitive, a fast learner, and quickly began to enjoy it.

The CARE program she helped to select for Covance would address maternal and infant health in Nepal, helping mothers understand that prenatal care was essential, that delivering in a birthing center would improve the odds of a healthy delivery, and that the fathers needed to have more of a role in parenting. It also provided the right nutrition for mother and baby. During the three-year program, Thompson went to Nepal every year to see how the project was progressing against its objectives. She saw that it “was really delivering.” It was having a great impact on the families in Nepal, and the effect was rippling out through the local women trained as community healthcare workers, who felt a great deal of pride and empowerment from their roles.

The success of the maternal and infant health program inspired Covance employees to find other ways to help. Through an online auction of traditional handicrafts Thompson brought back from a site visit to Nepal, Covance employees donated funds to build bathrooms in a local school, as girls in Nepal often drop out of school once they start menstruation because of the stigma associated with it. Since then, CARE reported the graduation rate for girls at the school has improved, as has the general health and hygiene of the community, says Thompson.

Thompson ended up working at Covance for five years, becoming interim head of corporate communications in 2014. Throughout her tenure, she says, she “kept ratcheting up the amount of time I was spending on CSR.” Eventually, she began looking for a position that was entirely focused on CSR, and soon landed at Alcon.

Shoring Up CSR at Alcon

One of Thompson’s tasks at Alcon has been to shore up the company’s CSR efforts. “There was a great legacy of institutional knowledge here,” she says, “but a lot of it was in individuals’ heads; it was not documented and shared.” Thompson’s team creates a rubric to objectively and consistently assess all of the grant requests that Alcon receives—a lot more each year than it can actually budget for. Another thing was to expand the company’s “Medical Missions” program. Each year, Alcon contributes products to hundreds of philanthropic medical missions in dozens of countries, meeting a critical need in low- and middle-income countries, where patients are waiting for cataract surgery or are cataract-blind, an easily preventable condition. The program used to involve doctors from the US traveling to other countries to support the missions. Thompson helped to put a process in place to support medical missions that originate outside of the US, with doctors from Germany, Australia, Brazil, and other countries traveling to other locations to provide services and training. (This has had to be curtailed, of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Within a year of joining Alcon, Thompson was appointed president of Alcon Cares and the Alcon Foundation. Alcon Cares donates consumables and equipment, while the Foundation donates monetary grants. The Foundation looks to provide support in three areas. One is focused on increasing access to eye care for the millions of people around the world, many of them in the US, who don’t have it. The second area is training doctors, expanding and improving their skills in ophthalmology. Alcon has partnerships with organizations such as Orbis and the International Eye Foundation that help to train doctors in optometry and ophthalmology, including phaco (phacoemulsification, a cataract surgery method involving the emulsification of the eye’s internal lens), and also help with the management and operation of hospitals. The third bucket is concerned with strengthening communities where Alcon associates live and work. “We want our neighbors to have as good a quality of life as possible,” Thompson explains. “There are so many social determinants for health. We support programs in everything from housing to literacy to hunger relief, addressing disparities that marginalized populations might be facing. In Fort Worth, Texas, for example (where the company was founded more than 70 years ago), we’ve been a partner to Habitat for Humanity for decades. For about nine months out of the year—as Texas is extremely hot—we might have associates working on building safe and affordable housing in the area.”

Hunger is another big issue. Alcon has supported the Tarrant Area Food Bank in Fort Worth for many years, as well as other hunger relief organizations around the country and globally. “We’ve also supported a program that feeds kids who get free or reduced-cost meals during the school week,” says Thompson. “What happens to those children on the weekends? Many of them end up coming to school on Monday hungry, so the program provides backpacks full of food for them for the weekend. The need is enormous. There are estimates that there will be more people who will die from hunger or starvation because of COVID-19 than people who will actually die from COVID.”

CSR and COVID-19

Running or overseeing community programs such as these in the middle of the pandemic has, of course, been a challenge. “It’s certainly slowed down the pace,” says Thompson, “because so much of what we do is in person.” Alcon has been unable, for example, to maintain in-person visits for its vision-care program for children from low-income families in Title 1 schools in Fort Worth. (At the time Thompson spoke to Pharm Exec, Texas was leading the country in COVID cases.) But the company is working with the school district and nonprofit partners to ensure eye exams and free glasses are provided for children who need them, and, she explains, “we are making sure we’re ready to go back into the schools as soon as it is safe.”

Further, Thompson wants to make Alcon’s children’s vision program “more robust, and roll it out in other cities where we have locations.” Elsewhere, she is proud of the work that the company’s partners have been doing during the pandemic, for example, in moving doctor training from in-person to virtual. In June 2020, Alcon partner Orbis launched its virtual “Flying Eye Hospital” training programs. The Flying Eye Hospital is an ophthalmic teaching hospital on board an MD-10 aircraft, which travels around the world to deliver training to eye care professionals in areas with the greatest need.

COVID-19 saw the MD-10 grounded, so Orbis tailored a remote curriculum for more than 100 ophthalmologists, nurses, and biomedical engineers in Zambia, with a view to extending the training program to other countries.

Thompson, like many people, has experienced her own struggles over the last year. With no immediate family in Texas, she hasn’t seen her loved ones in many months. She lost her 104-year-old grandmother in April and was unable to be with her mother at that time. But as the fight against COVID goes on, she continues to look ahead to how Alcon can further improve the lot of patients and doctors in less fortunate countries, where, for example, there may be just one or two ophthalmologists per million in population. “It’s frustrating when you hear about people who are cataract-blind, when you know that a 10-minute surgery could resolve the situation and get them back to work,” she says. “We want to see quality eye care readily available to as many people as possible.”

Julian Upton is Pharm Exec’s European and Online Editor. He can be reached at jupton@mjhlifesciences.com.