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Walking the Talk
Regenerating Local:
How Brands Can Bring Tangible Benefits to Communities in Need

At SB’23 San Diego, several discussions and events explored the potential for social impact when we rethink business as usual.

The SB community connects for Maui

L-R (foreground): Adi Saroya and Micah Kane

Getting right to the heart of the week’s theme of Regenerating Local, Sustainable Brands® brought attendees together on Tuesday night for the Connect for Maui Benefit — at which SB was honored to host Micah Kane, President and CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation.

rePurpose Global co-founder Aditya Siroya set the stage by highlighting the continued disconnect for many — even those of us within the sustainability space — between our goals and proclamations, and the on-the-ground changes needed to make them a reality.

As he pointed out, it’s because of our “not choosing to invest in local regeneration that we have the aftermath across the world of these disasters that, at their root cause, have the implications of us choosing not to reverse our ecological impacts. At rePurpose, we focus on a very different issue of dealing with plastic pollution — but even in dealing with plastic pollution, we see this microcosm of [many] complex, intertwined societal issues that [perpetuate these negative impacts]. So, I hope that in our time together, we can acknowledge these complexities, recognize what they are, sit with them — but also cede the connections between them and how we can slowly make our way through those interconnections."

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Kane then shared his heartfelt gratitude for the corporate and philanthropic response to this summer’s catastrophic wildfires in Maui and implored attendees to keep Maui — and the often-overlooked root causes of these increasingly frequent and devastating disasters, and communities most affected by them — in mind in their work.

“It makes a lot of sense for us to be here at such a critical time because, while I’m here to advocate for the Maui Strong Fund, I’m more interested in being an ambassador for the change that needs to happen so that this doesn’t happen to other communities around the world,” he said.

He recounted some of the connections he’d already made at SB’23 San Diego — including Chris Noble, Head of Corporate Partnerships at CARE, who helped him articulate that what’s true for Maui and all of the other communities working to recover from natural disasters is, “The window of attention is more important than the window of investment.” He said that the people who’ve felt compelled to contribute to relief efforts are the kind of people he wants to work with “to help us rethink what tourism looks like in Hawaii. They care about the people, they care about the place; and there’s a different experience that they should have when they come back — we’re thinking hard about what that looks like and how they can help us be ambassadors for what Hawaii can be.”

Kane asserted that, even in Hawaii, “we operate in a very degenerative system as a people, as to how we can sustain our culture and our homelands. There’s a different thinking that needs to happen in order for our culture to be perpetuated forever — and I can tell you, it’s one that’s going to have to be more inclusive. And I encourage you to lean into that space — across Indigenous people, across our country.”

Kane closed by thanking the SB community for its partnership and says he is excited to apply its innovative thinking into Hawaii’s recovery process, “so that we can model and educate the world about the importance of this work.”

Stay the course, stand out: Strategies for meaningful community impact

Erin Ceynar

A Wednesday morning breakfast discussion felt like a natural segue, as the Tides Foundation delved into strategies for companies to hold fast to their social-impact efforts in challenging times. Corporate social-impact teams the world over are facing enormous challenges, both internal and external, that are compelling them to do more with less. Even with these constraints, companies have a real opportunity to stand out by deepening their impact in their local communities and for social justice.

Led by Tides’ Senior Director of Corporate & Strategic Initiatives Harriet Gardner and Erin Ceynar, Senior Advisor of Corporate Social Impact, the session started off with an energizing, interactive peer-learning exercise about strategies for staying the course in the face of headwinds — social, political, economic or otherwise. In the report-out, one common theme was that social-impact work is rewarding; yet one challenge is Time: There never seems to be enough time to measure, monitor, manage and sustain the critical social-impact work, especially within served communities. Additionally, economic uncertainty certainly plays a role in terms of resources. Another point that was raised about how we show up in communities is intersectionality, and the ways we can go about building community.

Ceynar advanced the conversation by presenting some of Tides' strategies:

  • Connecting social-impact work to core business efforts

  • Engage employees and customers

  • Commit to the work for the long term

  • Invest in community-led organizations

  • Invest in trust-based approaches

Regarding the first strategy, Ceynar commented that organizations “need to land the purpose piece authentically so they can move into sustainability.” This can be seen, for example, in the ‘digital divide’ issue area — where in some cases, organizations can help build nonprofits’ capabilities.

Ceynar elaborated that landing the organization’s purpose can help engage employees and customers, particularly when it comes to consumer activation. One attendee recounted that her business of display-advertising management for bloggers built capabilities to switch to COVID-19 PSA messaging early during the pandemic when an industry peer wanted to donate unused advertising space to COVID-19 education. Now, this programmatic advertising house has expanded its work with nonprofits and served billions of ad impressions at no cost to nonprofits.

The strategy of ‘committing to the work for the long term’ was challenged, particularly in the context that ‘one-off’ or ‘moments in time’ activations (e.g. Pride, cancer awareness) are not a for-profit’s central business. Tareya Palmer, Senior Advisor at Tides, welcomed this perspective and added that Tides is concerned that for-profit companies that are not willing to invest over the long term may cause more harm than good for marginalized communities. She continued that, although corporate culture can be fast-paced, “the work takes time in building relationships and trust. Rushing is not the answer. Sometimes [doing] ‘something’ is the wrong thing.”

Lively conversation also ensued about now to meet business goals while helping to deliver on an organization’s mission. It was noted that sometimes a short-term ‘win’ is needed to get a longer commitment. Ceynar said practitioners on the cause side should come with strategy and business thinking to help business goals, while also imparting unique resources, tools and knowledge: “It’s about understanding that the goal is to help advance the longer-term strategies of the company while also advancing the longer-term goals of the [cause] organization.”

Gardner built on this by advising to take companies on a journey to push the work deeper — things that speak to the commercial side and then help drive the most impact with available resources. She acknowledged that there is no way to do it perfectly; but we should do everything within the existing system to drive change. Another attendee brought up the notion to align with your ‘superpower’ in a way that is authentic to the company. Lyft was highlighted as an example: The ride-share service employs its core mission and competency of providing mobility in all of its social-impact work, even when the company activates during certain “moments.”

In closing, Managing Advisor Diana Hunter recapped some reflections as takeaways:

  • These challenging times can create opportunities (as it did with the COVID-19 PSA messages and unexpected expansion with nonprofits as a result of donated ad space).

  • The importance of deep listening to employees, consumers, community. Start with their needs and priorities.

  • Finding and aligning purpose with impact and business goals, bringing to bear capabilities that makes an impact over both the short- and long-term.

  • Social-impact work takes time and it is hard to measure — whether finding partners, creating internal buy-in or aligning externally.

  • Getting comfortable with being imperfect and uncomfortable. It is important to stay engaged and to continue the conversation.

Building lasting social cohesion by uplifting communities

A rendering of the now-completed Emma Jean Hull Flats in Benton Harbor, Michigan | Image credit: Whirlpool

In this well-attended Wednesday afternoon breakout session, corporate sustainability leaders in the home appliance, confectionary and financial services industries shared insights into how their respective local-impact initiatives became an integral, and even a transformative, force within communities they serve.

Moderator Ethan Soloviev, Chief Innovation Officer at HowGood, opened the discussion with the question: “What does ‘social cohesion’ mean to you?”

Katrina Briddell, Head of Social Impact & Community Investment at The Hershey Company, shared that she views ‘social cohesion’ as encompassing a sense of connection and ties to how we approach all engagement. Madge Thomas, President of American Express Foundation and Head of Corporate Sustainability at American Express, added that ‘social cohesion’ is defining what society is to us and broadly includes where companies work and operate while underpinning corporate sustainability and CSR platforms.

When figuring out where to focus on to make the most impact, it is important to identify and tailor efforts to what resonates with certain stakeholders. At American Express, social-impact programs need to thoughtfully underpin corporate values and mirror “ESG” on the business side to the Foundation side, Thomas said.

Continuing American Express’ longstanding support of small businesses, the company launched “Backing Small” in early 2021 to help economically vulnerable US small-business owners — including underserved populations of entrepreneurs — recover from the pandemic and foster economic recovery. “Backing Small” offers wraparound resources and tools of grants, mentoring support and technical assistance for small businesses. Funds are being used to address critical needs and drive business expansion — including capital improvements, physical and technological upgrades.

American Express works closely with nonprofits “to define what would be meaningful and not tokenistic,” Thomas said. The company created an internal pipeline of diverse Small Business offices, now scaled to six countries with increased programs. Tying back to sustainability, this work is essential — particularly the infrastructure improvement — to support resilience before the occurrence of natural disasters among other devastating events. As Thomas pointed out, “If small businesses survive, then the surrounding community thrives.”

“We realized that we made a commitment to stay in the home community of our global headquarters,” said Stefanie Harvey-Vandenberg, Manager of Community Relations & Foundation Governance at Whirlpool Corporation. With no strategy and lack of impact measurement, “we had to get honest with ourselves. We decided to listen differently and better.”

A case in point is Whirlpool’s recent development of Emma Jean Hull Flats — an 80-apartment, waterfront complex in Benton Harbor, Michigan — where the company was founded and is headquartered. Harvey-Vandenberg and colleagues listened to local government officials, historical and influential leaders, and people with firsthand insight into what Whirlpool could do differently to help its fellow residents and learned that mixed-income housing was greatly needed to help revitalize the city’s downtown area. Housing was also a barrier to easier transition for Whirlpool’s new hires. Some apartment units are allocated for "Hometown Heroes" — public-service workers including first responders and teachers. An important issue for local stakeholders was that the new apartment complex should be named for former Benton Harbor Mayor Emma Jean Hull, whose legacy is associated with the revitalization of the city. Harvey-Vanderberg noted this housing initiative was instrumental in shifting Whirlpool’s local engagement from transactional to transformational — by listening with hearts, and not just ears, to diversity of thought.

Briddell said at Hershey, corporate philanthropy has been narrowed in to focus on the company’s HQ community. She admitted that it has been a slow and steady process — going from investing in Hershey’s HQ hometown and extending to other communities — which continues to develop as the strategy evolves.

Since 2019, Hershey’s Heartwarming Project has awarded microgrants to teens to create positive change in their schools and communities by sparking connection, boosting empathy and advancing inclusion. Mostly the microgrants are used for service projects in teens’ communities. Briddell revealed the data-driven insight that Hershey’s uncovered: When kids feel connected to one another and their communities, they are more likely to experience positive mental-health outcomes. A sense of connectedness is derived from positive peer and adult relationships and engagement within their communities. This targeted youth program aligns with Hershey’s ESG goals and uses the power of the brand to build a sense of community where one didn’t exist.

The panelists agreed that metrics are important because they demonstrate how to build social cohesion — yet they also recognized that measurement is a blend of science, art and emotion. Thomas said American Express and its nonprofit partners worked closely to demonstrate growth as a desired outcome. Numbers showed that the American Express grants contributed to small business’ growth; however, the qualitative side of the story and emotional resonance is powerful, Thomas said. Briddell noted that it is difficult to persuade teenagers to provide numbers associated with their respective service project microgrants, besides social media and other baseline metrics; however, the ripple effects — including who the teens engage with — are also important markers: “Metrics are meaningful; though it is also about building trust over tim” she said. Echoing this sentiment, Harvey-Vandenberg indicated that sometimes KPIs are ‘soft,’ with the belief that “Heart work is heart work. We can’t see it, but people can express it.”

By nurturing trust, amplifying local voices and creating partnerships that uplift communities, brands can become catalysts for positive change from the perspectives of community design, brand purpose and social science.