What does it mean to engage business in the community building conversation?

Submitted by Rachel Elizabeth on November 20, 2013 - 11:37am

What does it mean to engage business in the community building conversation?

This is a question that many people, both within business and beyond, are wrestling with across the country right now.

The exciting thing is there is a lot of movement in this area.  What follows are some reflections on conversations I had with a couple business and community leaders in Vancouver.

There is a lot of movement right now in the business sector as a shift in culture is allowing people within businesses more room to express their community values. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) it is taking the business communities by storm with many setting up CSR policies, protocols and departments.

Earlier this week, I met with Meriko Kubota the Senior Manager in Community Investment for Telus in Vancouver.  Meriko is a really innovative thinker with a history in the community sector. She talked about how many companies are starting to move from corporate social responsibility to community giving.  Though this may seem like semantics it marks a distinct shift in mindset from obligation to opportunity and philanthropy.

I noticed this shift when I was speaking with business leaders in Milton.  They take great pride in how they are often times the major funders for community events, kids sports leagues and campaigns.

Meriko though believes it's time to go further.  She wants businesses to start seeing themselves as community citizens.  This expands the mindset beyond the financial.  As a community Citizen businesses now have a responsibility to their neighbourhoods, their communities to help it flourish and become stronger.  This means being active in the community in a leadership role.

Another key distinction between a community citizen and corporate social responsibility is that the former is a means to an end (greater profit, increased customer loyalty ect.) while this new form of thinking means that being involved in the community is an end in itself.

On Tuesday, I went to a talk by Thorkil Sonne the founder of Specialisterne a company that works on getting people with autism and other developmental disabilities into the work force.  One of the things that came out of this talk was the role that companies can be as leaders through their employment practice and how that has a ripple effect, both out to other companies but also into the lives of those who work at the company and in the neighbourhoods that these employee’s live.

In a similar way, Urban Matters is playing a leading role in their industry.  By becoming a partner in the 1000 Conversations they are changing how their industry functions by incorporating community conversations into urban planning processes.  This will have massive ripple effects in all the communities they work in.  It also raises the bar for the industry and blazes a path for future organizations to step forward.

Much of the conversations so far have been focused on the bigger organizations with large staff and resources.  But what about the small businesses?

These businesses have a very important role to play in building community because they are deeply immersed in the community.  The challenge they face is they do not have the resources (financial and human) to have the same type of large impact.  But because of there size they can be far more nibble to respond to the needs of the community. And they also often have a deeper connection to the community they exist within and are therefore more aware of the needs.  They can also come together to form collective actions.  Groups like Business improvement Areas and Chambers of Commerce can play a key role in this.

The conclusion from all these conversations is that businesses have a key role to play in building community. The exciting thing for me is to see that there are people within business who get it and are working towards pushing their industries to be community citizens.