CSR Evolved: How one biotechnology company’s patient commitment drives brand impact

The stakes are high for pharma and biotech companies tackling acute, chronic, and rare diseases. From breakthrough medicines, to molecular diagnostics and cellular therapies, medical advances continue to evolve the treatment landscape. Yet some companies go beyond their mission statement and realize their ultimate impact is not defined by therapeutic intervention alone. These companies know that contributing to patient health requires more than the next great medicine – it requires understanding and addressing issues like socioeconomic status, physical environment, and access to care, all of which play a huge role in an individual’s ability to get and stay well. For the best outcomes, it means helping patients holistically.

A handful of companies, like Gilead Sciences, are setting a new standard for patient involvement. They are disrupting the traditional check-the-box Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives with a focus on making an impact through expansive community programs that are addressing the root causes and associated consequences of disease. In the process, they further amplify their corporate reputation.

Acknowledging the incredibly complex lives of HIV patients, for example, Gilead has created a comprehensive, aggressive strategy for attacking HIV-related issues from all angles. In the past two years alone, they’ve launched initiatives like:

  • COMPASS, a 10-year, $100 million partnership with community organizations combatting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the southern US,
  • HIV Age Positively, a $17.6 million grant program to 30 organizations addressing stigma, loneliness, coordination of care, and other formidable life challenges for HIV patients,
  • and an agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to donate drugs that reduce the risk of HIV transmission for up to 200,000 people a year through at least 2025.

I recently sat down with Korab Zuka, the Gilead VP of Public Affairs who oversees CSR efforts at the company, to learn more about how they’re upping the ante on community involvement.

How would you describe the path that led you to oversee Gilead’s out-of-the-box CSR initiatives?

Korab Zuka (KZ): I’ve had a heavy focus on public service throughout my career, starting at the United Nations in Kosovo, where I focused on initiatives related to higher education, youth, and health. I joined Gilead close to five years ago from the Patient Access Network Foundation, where we offered financial assistance to people who couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket costs related to their debilitating diseases. When I learned about the CSR role at Gilead, it felt like an extension of my life’s work—I was excited to join a company that had committed the resources to make a vast difference in the lives of so many people.

What’s the overarching philosophy behind CSR Programs at Gilead?

KZ: Gilead has long been renowned for the great science we apply to intractable conditions like HIV and Hepatitis C. But we realize that science alone will not be enough to achieve the best health outcomes. Patients have so many other issues beyond their illnesses that must be addressed.People living with HIV, for example, are dealing with stigma, rejection, homophobia, health access problems, and a broad range of additional issues. Through our CSR programs, we’re taking a holistic approach to supporting these affected communities.

You’ve launched some incredible partnerships – COMPASS, HIV Age Positively, HepConnect, and more. How did you get these collaborations off the ground?

KZ: We start out with a lot of white space; we always want to build on great things that are already happening, versus approaching new partnerships in a prescriptive way. We go on a listening tour, where we talk with advisory boards, conduct field visits, and engage in a lot of conversation with potential partner organizations. We try to understand the overall landscape and stakeholders, and determine how Gilead can contribute our own expertise and resources in a way that complements what’s already being done. As a team, we also collaborate closely with Gilead’s CSR committee, which spans departments across the company and works together with us to develop our multi-year roadmap of CSR objectives.

As more and more employees seek social commitment and action from their employers, how does employee engagement factor into your work?

KZ: We come from a place of wanting to do the right thing for patients and wanting to bring our more than 11,000 employees along on this journey. We see their desire to do so reflected in every one of our employee surveys; people clearly want to work with companies that are a force for good. Including employees in our CSR work helps to keep them engaged and foster their sense of belonging and purpose, which can easily get lost in the face of day-to-day demands. The feedback on our approach here has been overwhelmingly positive. Our employees often tell us that the chance to get involved with CSR is a big reason why they join the company.

How is Gilead measuring value accrued to reputation?

KZ: At Gilead, each large scale philanthropic program has an evaluation component; we want to know that the money we invest is making a difference. We agree upfront on various indicators – these are critical to ensuring we have transparency into what’s working and what’s not – so we can make changes and tweaks going forward. We’re also interested in sharing our learnings around how multiple organizations can agree on a common agenda, which can be extraordinarily complex. We hope other companies can take what we’ve found and use it as a model for establishing their own CSR strategies.

What one thing do you hope other companies can take away from the work Gilead is doing in the CSR space?

KZ: Doing the right thing for patients means considering more than just the medicine itself – even if your approach doesn’t work at times. In a way, it’s similar to drug discovery: there’s often a lot of elimination and rigor involved when you’re trying to impact social change.

To learn more about Gilead’s CSR efforts, visit gilead.com/purpose/partnerships-and-community.

Go Beyond CSR for Brand Impact

If you are looking to up-level your CSR approach beyond checking the expected boxes, and you are not sure where to start, feel free to reach out here.

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