How Corporate Clout Helps Communities Thrive

Civic-minded business leaders are working to lead change on complex issues in their own neighborhoods.

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Business leaders are turning their attention toward building prosperity at home, in the communities where they live and work. They are using their most limited resource — their personal time — to tackle complex local issues, such as health and health care, K-12 education, early childhood development, housing, and hunger. They do so because they believe that thriving citizens and communities make for stronger companies, happier workers, and a positive leadership legacy.

Early innovators in this space are transforming their companies’ priorities and leading cross-sector partnerships to drive local goals. Bob Rivers, CEO of Boston-based Eastern Bank, is one example: He set his sights on the struggling midsize cities in the region, building the first full-service bank branch in 20 years in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a formerly thriving textile mill town bowed down by poverty and joblessness. Rivers then helped launch the Lawrence Partnership, which offers bilingual work training, a venture loan fund for local businesses, and regional collaboration on broader structural issues. He is replicating the model in other Massachusetts cities and recently cofounded a new statewide business coalition to advocate for early childhood education.

In five years of studying and advising these kinds of business-led ventures, I have found that a common thread unites them. Instead of adopting a command-and-control leadership style, in which people in power propose solutions and push them out into the world, these CEOs architect innovation ecosystems that unleash the potential for collective cocreation. This leadership mindset allows a community’s grassroots wisdom and priorities to blend with business leaders’ vision and data-driven analytics — producing solutions that everyone believes they own.

To get there, initiatives demonstrate five tenets: They tell a clear, purposeful story; they combine community priorities with institutional goals; they’re led inclusively; they typically influence the member organizations’ own internal policies; and they impel company leaders to acknowledge difficult truths.

A Medical Center Reaches Out to Its Neighbors

Rush University Medical Center’s now-retired CEO, Larry Goodman, and his executive team set in motion initiatives aimed at uplifting the community immediately surrounding the Chicago hospital. It is renowned for its outstanding quality of care and 40-year history of community engagement, but its leaders increasingly began to acknowledge that Rush’s excellent care wouldn’t improve the health of residents of the tough neighborhoods just outside its doors.

“We were the best health care ‘box’ in the country,” said David Ansell, Rush’s chief medical officer. “But we decided to leave that box and focus on improving health outside our walls, in the community. It was a big organizational aha! moment.” (See “Five Musts for Leading Community Initiatives.”)

Here’s how Rush demonstrated the five tenets of leadership as it engaged with the city’s West Side neighborhoods.

1. Tell a story of problems and possibilities. Corporate clout lies not only in the resources executives bring to the table, but also their ability to inspire would-be partners to act. “You need to have stories that capture people’s hearts and minds and uplift the spirit,” Ansell explained. “The data reinforces the story. If you can agree on what matters, then you can organize people to take action.”

Ansell had extensive data on what he called Chicago’s racial death gap — the dramatic differences in life expectancy based on where in the city people lived. From his earlier success in shrinking Chicago’s racial gap in breast cancer deaths, he had devised a simple formula: narrative + data + action = change.

Beginning in 2016, the Rush team invited the CEOs of Chicago’s six other hospital systems to meetings where they deployed Ansell’s formula. ZIP code was a greater predictor of life span than genetic code, they told the assembled group (the narrative). They showed a picture of Chicago’s rapid transit system and asked the group to envision getting on in downtown Chicago, where residents live to an average age of 85. If they got off seven stops later, to live in Chicago’s West Side, their life expectancy would drop to age 69 (the data).

The storytelling was remarkably effective. Attendees were surprised, appalled, and ultimately convinced. Every CEO in the room accepted the invitation to help launch a new initiative to tackle the problem (the action).

2. Embrace grassroots and institutional strategy setting. In community prosperity initiatives that produce results, business leaders design strategic planning processes that explicitly aim to build trust among grassroots and corporate leaders.

“The solution is not to bring together major institutions to ‘fix’ the West Side communities,” concluded Chicago-area leaders in an initial report about the proposed West Side Total Health Collaborative (which has since been renamed West Side United, or WSU). “We will succeed by harnessing the collective power, ideas, and work of residents, institutions, government, the faith community, and community-based organizations.”

Rush and its partners set the tone of their work by convening 120 West Side residents and representatives from nearly 50 organizations to better understand the wants and needs from the community.

The hospitals then embarked on a months-long listening tour to hear residents’ ideas and build relationships. Initiatives such as cohosted listening sessions with local leaders encouraged broader community participation and cultivated trust. Darlene Hightower, Rush’s vice president of community health and equity, and her team also worked to make Rush representatives relatable, bringing in Black and Brown leaders as cohosts and holding some meetings in Spanish.

The tour identified priority areas that were consolidated into WSU’s strategy: health and health care, education, neighborhood and physical environment, and economic vitality. A metrics dashboard was developed to link the four community-identified needs to five institutionally identified drivers of the death gap: cardiometabolic disease, cancer, opioid overdose, infant mortality, and homicide.

3. Establish consciously inclusive governance.Collective impact initiatives are distinctly different” from other types of partnerships, John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG wrote in a 2011 article. Sustained engagement around complex local issues often requires the establishment of a new infrastructure, including dedicated staff members, that’s designed to balance community and corporate power.

WSU’s governance elevates the community’s voice and ensures permanent decision rights for local leaders alongside business leaders. WSU’s Executive Leadership Council consists of six hospital executives and six community representatives. The separate Community Advisory Council comprises 18 people who attend every strategy meeting, participate in working groups, and advise how community grants will be awarded. Residents who participate are paid for their time. (See “Four Sets of Polarities for Building Co-Leadership.”)

One of the ways Ayesha Jaco, WSU’s executive director, elevates the community voice and builds citizen engagement is by hosting “West Side Story” sessions for neighborhood residents. Jaco draws on her background in dance choreography to raise people’s awareness of the abundant strengths that they possess despite the gravity of their problems. Her sessions use visual images, trivia games, and open dialogue to amplify residents’ pride in their neighborhoods’ beauty, cultural riches, and existing assets, and connect them to WSU’s four strategic goals. Jaco’s grassroots leadership is a crucial strategic complement to the problem-focused vision of closing the death gap.

4. Drive change inside your own walls. Many CEOs find that leading community prosperity efforts inspires them to look more closely at their guiding purpose and how they approach issues ranging from wages, benefits, and employee development to purchasing, investing, and philanthropy.

Rush’s leaders undertook extensive internal change efforts to align strategy and operations with their community health commitment as a West Side anchor institution. Closing racial, ethnic, gender, and age equity gaps in Rush’s patient care was a major priority.

Leaders also realized that their own employees from West Side neighborhoods should represent the first community they sought to help. Internal research revealed that employees, mostly Black and Latina women, living in neighborhoods with the lowest life expectancies were the most financially distressed. They had the lowest rates of retirement plan participation and the highest rates of early withdrawal from the plan for reasons that included evictions, utility payments, and wage garnishments.

Rush responded by raising starting wages to $15 an hour, offering financial wellness and credit counseling, and reforming the pension program to increase employees’ retirement savings. Other changes included strengthening internal career development pathways, partnering with local colleges on training, and asking employees to help direct where community investment funds should go. For each of the areas that leaders tackled “inside the walls,” Rush now sets annual goals and shares the outcomes publicly.

5. Strive for authentic personal leadership. Perhaps the most important — and personally demanding — job for executives is to demonstrate authenticity and genuine commitment to both business and community goals.

Darlene Hightower, who is Black, was able to share her background growing up on Chicago’s South Side as a way to connect with community residents. But Rush’s White executives, with chief medical officer Ansell in front, had to learn to speak frankly about racism as a root cause of stubborn social structures, such as patterns of intergenerational poverty and persistent educational gaps. CEO Goodman said the message he heard during the initial listening tour basically was, “We don’t fully trust you.” Institutions had been overpromising and underdelivering for decades.

To build back trust, Goodman and Ansell signaled respect to local leaders as equal partners by meeting them in their neighborhoods — in their spaces, and on their schedules. Goodman insisted on transparency around Rush’s data about racial inequities and the organization’s responses. He made sure the Rush board of trustees was fully informed and involved. Its members, in turn, were wholly supportive. In the end, as Rush tracked the costs, benefits, and outcomes of its efforts, doing the right thing was almost always also good business.

In under five years, WSU has become one of the largest such efforts in the country, covering over 500,000 Chicago residents in 10 West Side neighborhoods. WSU and its member hospitals have invested over $9 million in West Side projects, raised $3 million to establish health care career pathways and small-business grant programs, and launched ventures targeting hypertension control and maternal infant outcomes. In 2021, with a $10 million grant from BMO Financial, Rush launched the Rush BMO Institute for Health Equity.

When COVID-19 hit, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called on WSU to help lead the city’s racial equity response. Brian Fabes, who co-organized the effort as part of Chicago’s Civic Consulting Alliance, summarized the spirit of the work: “We tried to find the sweet spot of combining community knowledge, insight, and leadership with institutional influence, resources, and power.”

Business-led coalitions for local prosperity are not yet a well-known phenomenon, but they are capturing the attention of CEOs across the country. As well-meaning business leaders explore how to lead change on complex issues in their own neighborhoods, they will struggle with social problems that are so complex that it’s hard to know where to begin. Rush and WSU offer a model for getting started.

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