When the Right Thing is Also the Smart Thing

I have spent my entire career in the nonprofit sector. During most of those 40 years, I have worked hard to build strong ties to the business community, but my rationale for doing so has evolved. As a trained social worker, I used to argue that businesses should support community efforts because it was simply the right thing to do. Today, with a deeper appreciation for the needs and motivations of business, I believe that private sector support for nonprofits is not only good for the community, but it is very good for business as well. And the research seems to back me up.

To begin, Forbes Magazine reports that 82% of U.S. consumers actually consider whether a business demonstrates social responsibility when deciding what services and products to buy. Moreover, at a time when we are competing in this region for talent, the magazine also found that 86% of Millennials greatly value their company’s community involvement and view it as a deciding factor when considering where they work.

Connecting private enterprise to public interest is the groundbreaking business strategy for the 21st century documented by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle professor at the Harvard Business School and director of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative. In her highly acclaimed book, SuperCorp, Kanter demonstrates that employees give their best to their company when their efforts are tied to a higher purpose. At a time when innovation in all industries is a business imperative, she shows that employees are more inclined to be creative when their company is involved with making changes that help the world.

In a keynote address to the International Leadership Association, Kanter declared that today’s workforce “can’t just think ‘out of the box,’ they need to think ‘out of the building.’” They need to interact with people who see the world from different perspectives and who have their own innovations to share.

Kanter draws on IBM, Proctor & Gamble and other multinational corporations to make her case, but I have observed outstanding examples of how our local businesses also seek mutually beneficial ties to the larger community. To strengthen those connections and to help their employees acquire new skills and insights, virtually all of the major employers in this region have enrolled their aspiring and established leaders in Leadership Greater Hartford’s various community leadership programs. They encourage their employees to get involved with the United Way, to serve on nonprofit boards and to support other philanthropic efforts. And just last month, scores of area businesses nominated candidates for the Hartford Business Journal’s “40 Under Forty” award, citing in part their employees’ strong commitment to community service.

Employee community involvement, then, seems to be part of the civic DNA in Greater Hartford.  Indeed, it may be one of our competitive advantages. Recently, I learned about a business-community relationship that illustrates why we might use this strategy more often.

Boris Levin is President and CEO of Mott Corporation, a high precision filtration and flow control company based in Farmington. Having learned that his employees were interested in making a difference in the local community, Levin began discussions with Susan Walkama, President and CEO of Wheeler Clinic, a Plainville-based nonprofit health and human service organization providing a comprehensive continuum of integrated primary care, mental health and addiction recovery services and other supports across Connecticut. A partnership emerged that involves Mott employees regularly working side-by-side with Wheeler staff as health ambassadors in an array of community-based health outreach activities. They’ve helped keep kids entertained so moms could get health screenings. They’ve walked hand-in-hand with individuals in recovery to reduce stigma. They’ve made Christmas special for dozens of children in foster care.  They’ve held the hands of grieving parents who lost a child to overdose.

Levin reports that these engagement activities have broadened his employees’ awareness of those with serious life challenges and made them better and more empathetic leaders. He adds that these activities have also helped his employees “get to know one another better and to create stronger bonds and trust among them,” an unanticipated but welcome business outcome.

In sum, corporate social responsibility is what consumers want and what our workforce increasingly expects.  It spurs innovation and employee engagement, creates empathetic leaders and generates trust among company workers. And if this ROI isn’t compelling enough, it’s also the right thing to do.

 

Ted Carroll is president of Leadership Greater Hartford.

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