06/24/2011 09:13 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2011

The Positive Side of Negative Space: An Interview With Merck's Ellen Lambert

Ellen Lambert is Executive Vice President of the Merck Company Foundation, which has contributed more than $560 million to support social health and wellness initiatives since 1957. She also champions the pharmaceutical company's robust pro bono service efforts. Ellen and I chatted this week about how art can be applied to philanthropy, how hunger became one of Merck's signature issues, and how to accessorize with a Six Sigma green belt.

I am planning a sabbatical and struggling with what to do. If you had two months to explore, generate new ideas, and refresh, how would you spend them?
I'd look at hunger and survival and water issues. I would try and personally experience some of the work going on with education and gender disparities, looking at educational opportunities for girls. I might also look at other ways to talk to people. Sometimes it's experiencing a community art project together. Sometimes it's sitting with a storyteller and listening together. I think those are the ways I learn about what's really going on.

How does Merck approach problem solving and learning?
I think Merck understands that there are 360-degrees to an issue and really encourages people internally to look for that critical place where the problems aren't being solved because the majority of people are thinking about the issue too narrowly. We want to look for places where we don't see an answer yet -- to listen, to think, to respond quickly.

How does that compare to other pharmaceutical companies?
We are staying a research company and really clearly going against the tide for pharmaceuticals. The other thing that always sticks here is trying to understand the side that you can't see. I like to call it 'the Mona Lisa lesson.' If you ask people what's in the background of the Mona Lisa, most of the time people don't know, saying 'Maybe trees?' or 'It's just dark green.' The lesson is to focus on what you are not seeing. In art, they call it negative space -- the space that's not familiar.

Merck embraces the Six Sigma management strategy. What color is your belt?
I have a green belt. I'll be getting my Design For Six Sigma black belt before the end of the summer.

Green! Is that hard to coordinate with, outfit-wise?
You know, I just tie it up in my hair while I'm jogging.

What do you think about Six Sigma?
I think it is a tool. And it's a good tool, but it's not the only tool.

What does it leave out?
Six Sigma definitely helps you get your arms around the objective side of the issue. But sometimes you have to allow the subjective in. I think you always have to be able to see that opposite side. My interpretation of an after-school activity is different from that of a mother in Newark or a mother in Trenton. When we're impacting children, we have to think about those other perspectives and angles.

How does pro bono service fit into what you do today at Merck?
Merck has a very long history of legal pro bono work; I think it is going into its 16th year. Our legal department in particular is really committed, participating in a number of very strong pro bono programs. We've also provided some human resources, administrative, and marketing assistance, and we're finding ourselves in the boat to provide Six Sigma assistance for some larger non-governmental organizations.

What sort of help do you give to large non-governmental organizations using Six Sigma?
We're actually seeing it in process needs, such as combining cumbersome processes in disaster relief. In education around natural disasters, there's a need to really understand and be able to explain and coordinate processes around responses and prevention. We're also finding that a lot of Six Sigma work can help our NGO healthcare and education providers work within systems to be more efficient and yet more effective.

A big issue you fund is hunger. With so many pressing issues, how'd you wind up choosing that one?
The summer I arrived at Merck, there were a lot of articles about hunger in the United States, particularly in Philadelphia and New Jersey, where our headquarters are located. Since then, we've put between $5-6 million toward hunger issues around the world with many partners, including Sesame Street, who are addressing the community's response to hunger.

How do you approach an issue as large as hunger?
We actually look for partners that address key issues around the root causes of hunger. We also bring together corporate partners. After about eight months, we held a 'head bunking' conference. We funded an entire day at Liberty Science Center and invited about a hundred corporate and private foundations to come and listen to three sessions on hunger. Collaboration is tough, but if we don't' all support each other, then I don't think we make it to the finish line.

What does competition mean in corporate philanthropy?
What I'm finding from a practical level that other people do, in most cases, want to collaborate. And the best thing is that even if you can't find a collaboration within your own industry, it's not difficult to find them outside the industry. For example, we had a fabulous collaboration with United Healthcare on Food for Thought. But there is a positive side of competition that drives philanthropy forward; you can still formulate new ideas and compete. I wouldn't say all competition is negative.

Philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility often get lumped together. What's the difference?
The two are always connected, but my students explain it this way: they see CSR as a 'must be done.' You can't get away with not being concerned about your foot print, your carbon use, your water use, your recycling, your treatment of employees. It's your responsibility -- which means you have to do it for the communities as well as the countries in which you live. My students see philanthropy as more of a choice: you choose to make charitable contributions that focus on issues of the external world and society. That's generosity without responsibility. That's an additional choice, and it's one more step toward being a good corporate citizen.