When Melissa Ghislanzoni became a lawyer, she intended to change the world.
"I went to law school wanting to make a difference," she says. "I really love academia but am personally more satisfied with creating concrete results," she says. And though the 30-year-old feels her work as a corporate lawyer with Fraser Milner Casgrain in Toronto allows her to do just that for clients, she wanted something more.
That chance came last summer, when Ms. Ghislanzoni learned her firm was participating in Leave for Change, a program run by Uniterra, an international volunteer initiative run by the Canadian International Development Agency, World University Service of Canada and the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation.
Leave for Change gives Canadians the opportunity to volunteer their professional skills in developing countries for two to four weeks. It's the only short-term program in Canada in which participants aren't required to leave their jobs for an extended time.
At Fraser Milner Casgrain, or FMC, participants have to use their vacation to participate in the program, but the firm then gives back half of that vacation time. Outside of that, the cost of the program to the firm for each participant is about $5,000.
"I was so excited," says Ms. Ghislanzoni, who rushed to look at the Leave for Change website to see what opportunities were available for those with a legal skill set. "I saw a posting in Botswana and immediately knew I wanted to apply for it," she says.
Her company's involvement in the program came as no surprise to Ms. Ghislanzoni. "We have a strong tradition within the firm of corporate social responsibility," says FMC chief executive officer Chris Pinnington. "It runs the gamut from supporting local charities to strong involvement with the United Way campaign," he says. The firm also participates in the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council's mentoring program.
FMC's desire to participate in Leave for Change, Mr. Pinnington says, is also tied to a very real business need to diversify. A team that's diverse - through inclusive hiring and the international exposure offered through Leave for Change - better equips the firm to compete in an increasingly diverse environment.
"There's a pretty important business dimension to all of this, in terms of being responsible to our clients and aligning ourselves with their expectations of diversity," he says.
The firm allocated $40,000 for participation in Leave for Change, allowing eight staff members to take part. Fourteen employees completed Uniterra's application. Rather than narrowing the list to eight, the firm's human resources department handed the applications off to Uniterra, which then chose the eight participants based on the best matches between postings and applicants. In the end, seven employees participated, including Ms. Ghislanzoni, who volunteered in Botswana late last year, and her Edmonton colleague and marketing specialist Jenn Muir, who returned from a three-week post in Vietnam in January. (The eighth staff member became ill and could not travel.)
Both Ms. Ghislanzoni and Ms. Muir say the program not only had a profound effect on their personal lives but on their professional lives as well.
Ms. Muir, who went to the Vietnamese province of Binh Thuan, acted as a marketing and communications adviser to a community college, with the mandate of facilitating workshops focused on marketing and communications, as well as to meet and meeting strategically with management at the school. "We're such a deadline driven society here, and everything is based on time," Ms. Muir says. "At the college, time was important, but there was a much stronger balance between work and life. Now at work, I try to focus on taking time to enjoy what's going on around me."
At the end of her three-week stay, Ms. Muir didn't want to leave Vietnam. But she returned to FMC with a renewed energy. "It was motivating for me as an employee to participate in this," she says. "It invigorated me."
Working in Shakawe, a town of about 3,000 in Botswana, Ms. Ghislanzoni became acquainted with locals as she set out to revise a deed of trust, a document that sets out the parameters within which a community trust is permitted to operate, for the Okavango Cultural and Development Initiative in the Okavango Delta. "I learned everything I needed to know to revise the deed through conversations with people there," she says. "They told me personal stories about ancestors, about their political struggles, the logistical challenges with revising the trust."
All of that translated into a lesson she now applies to her work in Canada. "It really taught me about the importance of getting to know your client," she says. "You can be the smartest lawyer, but if you don't know what your client needs and what their problems are, then you can have the perfect document but it isn't perfect for your client. The experience has made me try to make a personal connection with clients because that's how you're able to tailor your legal work."
Like Ms. Muir, Ms. Ghislanzoni's experience left a positive impression of her employer on her. "It reinforced the fact that the firm recognizes that different experiences all have different values and they all have a place in the firm," she says. "It shows quite a bit of forward thinking and it makes me feel loyal to the firm because they supported me in something important to me."
And that's another advantage of the program, Mr. Pinnington says. "Like every good employer, we want to be a workplace of choice, and that means providing opportunities to members of the firm, to support them in their professional and personal development," he says. "It makes them more committed and productive members of FMC. People want to be part of an organization that is actively engaged and committed to giving back."
Uniterra's handling of the program's logistics made it that much more attractive. "The support is well co-ordinated, precise and complete," he says.
The organization works rigorously to match individuals to the opportunity best suited for them. Potential participants browse postings on Uniterra's website, and then complete an application that includes information on their professional skills as well as more personal details.
"They ask a lot of questions about your technical expertise but also about your personality and how you deal with different environments and change," Ms. Ghislanzoni says.
Ms. Ghislanzoni found the two-day, pre-departure training helpful. "A Botswana country ambassador gave us his impression of the differences between Canadian and Botswana societies," Ms. Ghislanzoni says. "He taught us things like how to greet someone properly, the social graces that you can't pick up from a book. That was comforting."
The highest praise for the firm's participation in Leave for Change, Mr. Pinnington says, has been clients who've wanted to follow suit and get involved themselves.
"It's a happy convergence from a client perspective and a people perspective," he says. "It all meshes in a way that's very positive and powerful."
By the numbers
20: Number of companies and institutions participating in the Leave for Change program in Canada.
65: Canadians who participated in the past year.
12: Number of countries to which Leave for Change sends Canadian participants, including Botswana, Vietnam, Bolivia, Ghana and Nepal.
5: Years the program has existed in Canada.
Follow us on Twitter: