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.

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