Activating a Company Culture that Creates Change in Communities: AbbVie’s Week of Possibilities


At Chicago Ideas, we’re lucky to have partners that inspire us with their dedication to making a difference. One such partner, AbbVie, hosts their own week of big ideas, called the Week of Possibilities. As the name implies, it’s a dedicated week for AbbVie staff to contribute on an individual and team level to local community projects. Week of Possibilities started at AbbVie’s Chicago headquarters and has grown to involve events in 56 countries around the world. We sat down with Tracie Haas, AbbVie’s vice president of corporate responsibility, brand, and communications, to find out how the corporation creates a culture of giving back and how you can jumpstart philanthropy into your own company.


What was the impetus behind AbbVie’s Week of Possibilities?

Five years ago when AbbVie was a newly formed company, my team and I had the unique opportunity to build a philanthropy-focused culture from the ground up. In my role as the head of corporate responsibility, I was tasked with thinking deeply about where and how we could make the most impact. We established and have remained grounded in three philanthropic pillars: building strong communities, sustainable health care systems, and effective educational programs.

From the beginning, we knew we wanted to go narrow and deep. One of the places it became clear we could do that was in North Chicago, where our company is based. We met with an incredible local group called North Chicago Community Partners and the school district’s superintendent. They already had a vision for how to transform the city’s school system and give the children of North Chicago every opportunity to be successful. They had an idea of creating a community school—a place where the community gathers and is inspired—which really resonated with us. We felt strongly that our employees could contribute to this effort in a tangible way.

We thought, what if we all came together and dedicated a whole week of our time and energy—what a difference we could make. That’s how Week of Possibilities was born.


How has this emphasis on the importance of volunteering and community affected the culture of your company?

AbbVie aims to make a remarkable impact on people’s lives. Philanthropy and giving back is our company culture. It’s become a huge part of our identity and a beacon for prospective employees. While Week of Possibilities is an important moment for us, a culmination of efforts and a chance to get a lot done for our partners in a single week, it’s just one way that we deliver on our philanthropic commitments.

By building long-term relationships with our nonprofit partners, we’ve ingrained philanthropy into our culture. We’ve also helped employees see how their ongoing volunteerism makes a difference for the people these partners serve. For example, we’ve supported the school district in North Chicago for five years, across all grade levels, so our employees have been able to see how improvements they’ve made to the infrastructure of buildings and programs have impacted the community. We have other philanthropic touchpoints throughout the year, like our Employee Giving Campaign each fall. According to global “Giving in Numbers” prepared by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, 35 percent of employees participate in programs of this sort, on average. However, last year, more than 90 percent of AbbVie employees participated in our giving campaign.


How has the Week of Possibilities evolved over the years?

When we started Week of Possibilities five years ago, it involved about 1,000 employees at our headquarters in North Chicago. By our fifth annual event in June 2018, nearly 9,000 employees in 56 countries spent a collective 37,000 hours giving back to the communities where they live and work. From the very first year, we were overwhelmed by the response from our global employees, who quickly helped us see that we could replicate what we offered at our headquarters in many other cities and countries.

While Week of Possibilities has grown and evolved, it’s important to note that we always evaluate opportunities and local nonprofit partners against our three philanthropic pillars and overall strategy to create the greatest, and most focused, impact.

It’s also important to say that, while Week of Possibilities is our annual signature volunteerism event, our employees engage in volunteering efforts all year long as it’s truly part of our culture. This year, AbbVie was named as an honoree of the Civic 50, the fifth consecutive time, recognizing our place as one of the most community-minded companies in the US.


What learnings would you share with other companies who are trying to find ways to enhance their community engagement initiatives?

If you really want to make philanthropy and giving back a part of your culture, you’ll need to make that decision as a leadership team and follow through with action. Find something for people to rally around and identify as their company’s own unique program. Get your top leaders on board and invested early in the process. Make commitments and stick to them, always keeping your philanthropic priorities in mind. And, truly involve your employees. Invite their feedback and listen closely to what inspires them.


At Chicago Ideas, we’re experimenting with ways to ensure that people feel compelled to act on the inspiration they find at Chicago Ideas Week all year long. How do AbbVie employees integrate the momentum of the Week of Possibilities into their everyday work?

From the very beginning, we created Week of Possibilities not as a once-a-year effort, but as a way to inspire an ongoing commitment to our communities. We very intentionally chose partners with whom we could forge lasting relationships, knowing that we didn’t want to be the company that writes a check and then never comes back.

We’ve heard many stories from employees here and abroad who’ve been inspired to give back due to their experiences during Week of Possibilities. For example, an employee at our Sao Paulo location volunteered with his team at a nonprofit home for the elderly, and then started having lunch with its residents on a regular basis. Others go back to tend to sustainable gardens they planted, or mentor children they met while building a playground. As a leadership team, we’ve been really impressed with the dedication of our employees and the deep commitment they’ve displayed to our partners.

Jennifer Boudinot is a freelance writer and entrepreneur focused on the changing workplace, disruptive business practices and cocktails—yes, cocktails. She's also a book editor and a best-selling ghostwriter.

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