Take a non-siloed approach to transforming communities

Photo by Michael Zanussi/Flickr

Disasters have a unique way of bringing businesses and residents together toward a common goal, but we must find a way to harness that potential by creating a culture in a city or region where every business engages in its community’s most pressing issues.

During the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, some large national businesses pledged at least $1 million each in assistance to Texas. Since the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, some businesses have taken proactive positions on gun control. Citigroup issued new rules restricting the sale of guns by its business-banking customers. Delta and United Airlines, Hertz rental cars, and MetLife insurance stopped offering discounts to National Rifle Association members. Walmart, Dick's Sporting Goods and Kroger raised the minimum age for gun purchases.

To witness the influence corporate America can have on issues of importance is inspiring. Although, it is unfortunate that it took a tragedy like Parkland for our business community to actively weigh in on the gun control debate, it's a good example of how corporations can contribute to the betterment and safety of the communities they serve.

We need cities and communities with actively engaged businesses and citizens. Companies often provide the best platform to engage many individuals. When we bring together businesses, local governments and communities to address long-standing social problems, we can truly transform regions.

This process has begun already in Dallas. A. H. Belo Corporation, the parent of The Dallas Morning News, recently launched a multi-year effort to connect North Texas-invested businesses with causes to make a lasting impact on the community. Communities Foundation of Texas, based in Dallas, also announced the launch of CFT for Business, an initiative that engages businesses with the community.

Houston-based companies clearly see the value in giving back. Kroger and other Houston grocers provide local food banks with basic food necessities. There are numerous stories of companies collaborating to make a major impact during Hurricane Harvey.

Cities can be more compelling for major headquarters relocations if their local governments, corporations and citizens engaged in a more collaborative and impact-driven manner.  As Amazon narrows in on a selection for its second headquarters, concern has been raised about Dallas' education system and talent pipeline. It will take a collaborative approach to improve our educational performance and, ultimately, our workforce.

Dallas Social Venture Partners convened a large conference last fall focused on "impact investing, using for-profit investment as a mechanism for social change." United Way’s GroundFloor Program supports social entrepreneurs looking to solve Dallas’ most pressing issues.  However, a more comprehensive and collaborative approach amongst these various entities could bring more lasting results.

This is not a radically new concept; the blueprint exists.  Cities of Service, based in New York, was founded to set a new standard for how cities can tap into the power of their citizens to tackle their most pressing challenges. The Rockefeller Foundation subsequently provided funding that helped Cities of Service to offer technical assistance and other support to mayors of coalition cities. Cities of Service has helped over 235 cities in the U.S. and U.K., representing nearly 55 million people in 45 states, and more than 10 million people in the U.K.

They help mayors and city leaders tap into the knowledge, creativity and service of residents to solve public problems and create vibrant cities. They are combining the reach of City Hall with the on-the-ground knowledge of residents to solve public issues.

Detroit developed a citywide strategy with corporate, nonprofit and city partners that proved to be transformative. They amplified blight mitigation approaches and focused resources on a priority issue and simultaneously build the infrastructure to support citizen engagement.

While a variety of efforts are underway in Dallas, we must take this a step further. Instead of companies working in their own silos of causes they care about, we must bring together companies to collaborate for greater impact. The Collective Impact framework is a great tool for this. It provides a structured approach to collaboration between government, nonprofits, for-profits and citizens.

Companies at times define cities. Think about Amazon or Microsoft’s impact on Seattle, or how the Pharma industry impacts the New Jersey area, the tech companies define Silicon Valley, Texas Instruments’ impact in the Dallas and Houston areas, UPS in Atlanta, or Comcast in Philadelphia. A city’s value system makes it attractive to companies and their employees to live and work there. Cities need a unified brand and a unified approach toward solving its problems, so when the next HQ/HQ2 move comes around it can become a no-brainer.

Disclosure: Walmart, Communities Foundation of Texas, United Way, AT&T, Accenture, Southern Methodist University and Texas Instruments have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Sejal Desai

CFT for Business