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Walking the Talk
The Engagement Imperative:
How Organizations Can Align with Their Communities’ Needs

How can organizations best align their core business activities with community wellbeing? That was the topic of a recent Sustainable Brands webinar hosted by EVERFI and featuring insights from AT&T, EcoRise and Hershey.

In recent years — but especially since the COVID-19 pandemic transformed society — recognition that a company has a responsibility to not only support, but actively address inequities in the communities in which they operate has become increasingly central to corporate social responsibility.

“Innovation and sustainability have been important over the past decade,” said Jeff Fromm, a sustainability marketing expert and author of The Purpose Advantage 2.0. “Over the last 18 months, economic, social and racial justice have come to the forefront at a remarkably rapid rate.”

But how to best align an organization’s core business with community wellbeing? That was the topic of a recent Sustainable Brands webinar hosted by EVERFI — an international technology company driving social change through education, with Fromm joining participants from leading organizations.

A key theme was the need for brands to be both authentic and transparent. For companies such as Hershey and AT&T, that means connecting the challenges of the present with their legacy and long-term status as members of the community.

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“We really do want to think about where we are building from, and tie it to that narrative and story,” said Katrina Jurgill Briddell, Hershey’s Manager of Sustainability and Social Impact. “Be transparent; be open about the challenges you are facing along the way.”

This also helps avoid another growing concern — “purpose washing.” Customers, especially those from younger generations, are increasingly savvy at telling the difference between brands that are just saying the right things and those actually working to positively impact their communities. It was agreed that if you don’t share and communicate openly, brands risk being seen as inauthentic.

One way to demonstrate authenticity is to connect your sustainability work with your core business. Roman Smith, AT&T’s Director for Environmental and Social Innovation, shared how the company has been preparing for climate change — which will impact its telecommunication infrastructure — by creating neighborhood-level modeling of potential impacts. They realized that this data could be valuable to communities, as well.

“We built a model that is future-looking, for the next 30 years, on a 200-meter basis — not only to protect our own business, but also to help protect our communities with NGO partners,” Smith said. “Community leaders need to be engaged because the climate crisis is a climate justice issue, and we need information to get out into those communities.”

Working with nonprofit partners is often easier said than done. Gina LaMotte, founder of EcoRise — a nonprofit organization working to infuse sustainability, design innovation and social entrepreneurship through project-based curriculum — shared her thoughts on the challenges and opportunities of corporate-nonprofit partnerships.

“Even if the intentions are good, things gothings to go awry,” she said. “A lot of it goes down to power dynamics between a nonprofit and a corporation; and there is a tendency for a nonprofit to say yes to whatever it is, but not necessarily have the bandwidth to follow through.”

There is no easy solution except to plan ahead and build trust over the long term. Only then can partnerships really have an impact, LaMotte added.

“Longer-term investments are important for building and understanding each other's work,” she said. “I wish companies would start with 24 months — because we won’t get it right the first time, but we’ll learn so much from working from each other.”

One of EcoRise’s established partnerships is with AT&T — where LaMotte’s team is turning their climate modeling into educational materials, so that students can play a role in designing climate-resilience solutions in communities across the country.

“For us, education and working with youth is primary, an upstream approach that builds knowledge and behavior that lasts a lifetime,” LaMotte said.

Long-term engagement means companies have to be willing to invest significant resources into communities and partnerships, both in time and money. That requires true commitment. And it will pay off in the long term — if, as Fromm pointed out, brands align what they provide in communities with the values and desires of increasingly savvy and sustainability-focused consumers.

“People want to live their values, assuming there isn’t a significant premium in cost, time and convenience,” Fromm said. “When companies figure out how to fuse purpose and sustainability, and decrease the friction — then, values win.”

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