Business as a force for community impact

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I believe that climate change is real, advocate for increased use of renewable energy, and enjoy brainstorming ways to turn waste streams into unexpected, high-value assets. In college, I studied environmental engineering, environmental science and sustainable materials and technology. Pretty much all aspects of my educational background are highly technical and focused on the environmental sphere of sustainability.  Sustainability is broken into three spheres: people, planet, and profit. I encourage you to read my post, "Sustainability: Deeper than Green," to grasp the basics.

In addition to my technical background, I have always had a burning desire to find ways to empower and improve the lives of the underserved. Yes, healing the planet can catalyze chain reactions that inherently heal people. However, there’s so much more that can be done to intentionally and directly support people in need.

Over the past two years, I have spent extensive time exploring the stomping grounds of lower, middle, and upper class Atlanta. I have witnessed with my own eyes the negative socio-cultural/economic effects of gentrification, the tragedy of human trafficking, the exacerbation of chronic homelessness, the degraded health of citizens who inhabit food deserts, and much more. On the other hand, I have also seen how privilege, opulence, and greed fuel the systemic widening of the gaping social divide between astonishingly adjacent communities.

These experiences combined with a shift in worldview invoked by my time spent working at Interface, Inc. have led me to believe that business can be a force for social good.  Business must have stake in the conversation and a seat at the table.

Business is a part of the solution

The late founder of Interface and sustainability icon Ray C. Anderson, who I dub the “grandfather of corporate sustainability,” inspired the vision that I have for businesses. His famous quote, “Brighten your corner (of the world) where you are…and my god, what if everybody did it?” still possesses a hopeful strength and attainable truth that businesses have an opportunity to embrace.  Anderson’s impact philosophy was based upon the premise that “If business can be a part of the problem, it certainly can be a part of the solution.”  Through his revolutionary worldview, Anderson built a successful global corporation that proved to the industrial world that it could do well by doing good.

A vision of symbiosis

Symbiosis is a biological term defined as a mutually beneficial relationship between different people or organisms, typically living in close physical association. The relationship between goby fish and shrimp is an example of symbiosis in marine ecosystems. Shrimp dig burrows in the sand and both organisms live there. Since shrimp are nearly blind, goby fish touch the shrimp to alert it that a predator is near. 

I desire to see more businesses behaving in symbiosis with local communities in need. As a business anchors its roots deeper into the soil of a community, it should actively seek to increase its understanding of the broader social landscape. Delving into this landscape can help the business identify community challenges and steer it toward becoming an active player in the community's revitalization and resilience.

In order to play its part within a symbiotic relationship with community, a business can create flexible pathways in which employees can live out core company values by becoming catalysts of social change.  This begins with a business building unlikely partnerships with grassroots organizations that exist to solve a social issue and deploying its people and resources to support the cause. 

Creating initiatives on the grassroots level addresses the disconnection between the generous and the vulnerable, allowing both stakeholder groups to build relationships, press in, and generate high-impact solutions together. This relationship-building approach influences a business to shift from isolated philanthropy and volunteerism to continual, generational investment into underserved communities. The world needs more companies that are for the people, but more importantly with the people.

Linking social impact to business growth

Now, I know what you must be thinking. This all sounds and feels good. But, can this shift in approach add value to a business? Yes! Here are a few ways by which investing in community will contribute to bottom line growth and long-term business health. 

  • Create powerful narratives that build brand awareness, brand love, and customer loyalty & form new avenues for customer engagement as consumers are enabled to share in the mission via product/service purchase, campaigns, calls to action, and more.  “55% of consumers are willing to pay more for products from socially responsible companies (Double the Donation Research). Patagonia’s reached a record breaking $10M in sales after expecting $2M after announcing that 100% would be donated directly to grassroots nonprofits (Patagonia).”
  • Elevate business reputation to a level of inspiration and leadership capable of boosting media exposure, influencing marketplace trends, and opening up new doors for strategic partnerships.
  • Attract and maintain business investors. “Investors are more likely to pour into companies that demonstrate a commitment not only to employees and customers, but also to causes and organizations that impact the lives of others (Double the Donation Research).”
  • Cultivate a sensitive, educated culture that can breed social intrapreneurship, feeding game-changing ideas down the innovation pipeline into the core business.
  • Engage employees at every level in to their company's sustainability mission, increasing alignment with company values and vision. This gives employees a greater sense of purpose and meaning, creating a more engaged culture “Nearly 60% of employees who are proud of their company’s social responsibility initiatives are engaged on their jobs (Double the Donation Research).”
  • Contribute to increased attraction and retention of talent, reducing recruiting costs and capturing the brightest minds. “More than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good (Net Impact).”

Now what?

In the end, I believe that every company has a platform that can be maximized for symbiotic social impact. By bridging the gap between those living in abundance and deficit, a business can create new realities for vulnerable communities and experience the positive benefits associated with engaging its employees, customers, and investors deeply in its mission and vision.

Is your company already investing positively into communities in need? Let me know in the comments. I'd love to hear success stories and best practices. If you enjoyed this post, I’d be very grateful if you’d help it spread by emailing it to a friend, or sharing it on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. Thank you!