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Going Beyond Belief

When we moved into our office space at 7201 Wisconsin Avenue, the very first thing I did was have a quote painted on the wall right outside of my office:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

I have read those words, from Nelson Mandela, nearly every weekday morning since 2014, just as I step into my office to start the work day. It’s my constant and intentional reminder of the power and influence that good communication can have, especially when the pace of life can make real connections feel hard to come by or—in the case of this year—when the state of our national discourse feels too much to bear. But there’s something in those words that always brings me back to what I firmly believe, and to why I do the work that I do.

I believe that communications can change the world. I believe that when people connect with one another—often across whatever divides us—real, positive and lasting change happens. Whether it is advancing a critical piece of legislation, inspiring a movement, educating young students, or building bridges between cultural divides, positive change happens through communication.

But belief, while an important ingredient, is only half of the equation. One most act on those beliefs in order to realize their magnitude, which reminds me of another guiding quote, this one from Mahatma Gandhi:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

As I prepare to enter my 14th year in business, and our first anniversary under the new umbrella of Mission Partners, I can honestly say that entering every day with my core belief top of mind has allowed us as a company to lead with purpose. And leading with purpose has allowed us to build a company beyond belief:  a company that drives every decision with heart and head—a company that can say ‘what we do, for the good of others,” without even a second of pause. A company that goes further to get at the heart of our work, and sticks with that work until big breakthroughs are realized, because our heart’s in it too.

In this season of gratitude, I simply pause to give thanks for the people who drive me, the organizations that inspire me, and the daily routine that has become my “work.” It is, truly, beyond belief.

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The Promise to America’s Children and Youth

20 years ago last week, five living Presidents and Nancy Reagan were gathered together in Philadelphia at an event called the President’s Summit for America’s Future, hosted by General Colin Powell, to make a promise to our children and youth. Leaders from all sectors and all 50 states, along with young people from hundreds of communities, committed to one another and the nation that together they would provide all youth access to the critical success factors that they needed to thrive: a life filled with caring adults; safe spaces to learn, play, and grow; health and wellness for the best start in life; skills for meaningful and prosperous employment; and opportunities to share their gifts with others through service. They called these the “Five Promises,” and advancing them became the rallying cry for the America’s Promise Alliance.

I had a special seat at that Summit, even though I rarely had the chance to sit down while I was there. As a staff member of America’s Promise, I managed the logistics and much of the programming for the event. One of my fondest memories is of calling the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to book the venue: “Hello, I’ll be bringing all the living Presidents to town for a Summit next year, and I’d like to reserve every hotel room in the city for 4 days.” There was silence on the other end of the line…then finally, “Who are you?  Where are you calling from? Presidents of what?”

That was the start to a career defining experience for me, and it has since shaped every role in my professional life.

Last week, America’s Promise celebrated its 20th anniversary in New York City, an event that inspired us all to #Recommit2Kids. Led again by Colin and Alma Powell, the event featured President Clinton and a line-up of incredible speakers, young people, and performers who passionately made the case once again that we must help guide all of our nation’s children to a life of opportunity, fulfillment, prosperity, and contribution. This time I was a guest, and yes, I was glued to my seat the entire time.

It was heartening to see that America’s Promise has maintained its relevance for a new generation of young people, and even more gratifying to see how much has been accomplished since 1997. And yet, I found myself impatient and disappointed that we haven’t yet solved so many of the root problems that continue to plague or nation’s youth – especially those living in financial, social, or spiritual poverty.

We know, in the quiet of conscience, that our children deserve better.

They deserve a life that rewards their dreams, a life of opportunity, unburdened by injustice. Equal opportunity is the defining promise of our country. It is a commitment that should unite right and left, rural and urban, rich and poor. Without equality of opportunity, economic differences harden through generations in a way that is inconsistent with our nation’s ideals.” Colin and Alma Powell

20 years later, I am still optimistic that we can expedite our progress because of the evolution of the conversation since 1997. Having participated in both events, it was evident to me that we’ve grown as a people to be more accepting, more inventive, and more precise. We’ve grown as a culture where inclusivity and equity are the expectations, and exclusion and inequity are called out for what they are. The quality of the dialogue is so much richer today than it was a generation ago in Philadelphia.

Consider these themes that resonated throughout the event:

  • Identity: Young people celebrated who they are, not what they’ve done. The amazing and talented IMPACT Rep Theater and City Kids loudly and proudly shared their truths with us in performance of song, dance, and poetry. They expressed their authentic identities in ways that wasn’t safe for them to do 20 years ago, and we, as adults in the audience, embraced them with love.

“It shouldn’t require heroism to be a child.” Tiffany Yu

  • Data: Our embrace of data in the past 20 years has shed light on problems and the solutions that can be scaled for more effective intervention. For example, Nadine Burke Harris from the Center for Youth Wellness shared research on the biological consequences of the toxic stress that is caused by childhood adversity, including increased heart disease, depression, and other health risks for children that can carry into their adult years. Her solution is to ensure that educators and pediatricians know how to screen for and intervene in adverse childhood experiences, before they become biological aftermaths.
  • Equity: Nearly every speaker spoke to the need for universal equity for our children and youth. Not just equality; equity. Not just diversity; inclusion. And not about the bad choices that kids make, but about our failure as a society to provide all kids with sanctuary so they can survive and thrive. In 1997 we talked about equality, diversity, and dare I say, the blaming of parents. We know better now, and even though we have miles to go, I was inspired by the conversation and I believe that working together, we can achieve the equity that all kids deserve.

“In order to help children at risk, we have to be able to do things that are uncomfortable.” Bryan Stevenson

  •  Reach: There were about 800 people in the room at the Marriott Marquis this week, but there were well over 1 million people following the live stream and social media conversation. As Alma Powell pointed out, this tremendous increase in reach is something that was not available to us in 1997. And since the event, the retweets and reposts have exponentially exposed people to the issues facing children and youth.

 

There is so much to be done for our kids and for our nation. We must never rest at the sight of injustice and inequity. While there are no excuses for failing to be true to the ideals we hold so dear, I see progress in the quality of the conversation and the solutions we’re advancing today. I have tremendous hope in the promise for America, and I am #Recommitted2Kids.

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Corporate Responsibility in the Unpredictable Trump Era

Win, Lose, or Draw… I don’t think any of us know what the Trump era will bring.

For companies, a Republican President and Majority signals a pro-business agenda for the next four years. But Trump’s populist approach is unpredictable, and many of his proposed or projected policies could create headwinds for businesses. As I write this, corporate executives in all industries are watching carefully, listening intently, and muddling through mixed messages to develop stances on a myriad of scenarios, as they wonder how his positions on trade, immigration, healthcare, and education (to name just a few) will impact their businesses. Workers and consumers are watching their employers and their brands closely, expecting an increased level of corporate responsibility to ensure community and national well-being. Between government policy and public sentiment, companies will face enormous pressure to “do good” in the months and years to come.

An active and engaged Corporate Social Responsibility strategy is one way that companies leap into the future. It’s often through CSR strategies that companies can develop, test, and implement solutions to societal problems that if solved, would improve business, address headwinds, and elevate communities around them.

With this in mind, here are a few of my predictions for CSR in the Trump era:

1. More companies will invest more resources in education and workforce development in order to attain the talent they need to be competitive.

Many of Trump’s discussed policies could affect the ability of US-based companies to prepare, attract and retain skilled workers. Almost every company, in every industry, will need to be in the business of building “homegrown talent” and will therefore increase their investments education and workforce development. Take just some of the stances reflected in Trump’s inaugural address on Friday — Limiting H1b temporary work visas. Bringing manufacturing jobs back to US shores. Making major infrastructure investments to rebuild bridges, roads, rails and airports. Eliminating the Common Core curriculum in our public schools. If any one of these policies are enacted, much less all four, there will be immediate and intensive demand for many more skilled workers in communities all across the nation. Vacancies in high tech jobs that are already difficult to fill will skyrocket, and advanced manufacturing, engineering, and construction management jobs will demand that many more of our workers are STEM educated, trade certified, and digitally literate. The war for talent, and the deep need to upskill our workforce, are paramount.

As a result, there will be a marked increase in CSR investments that meet the specific needs of the changing labor market. We can expect companies to increase their investments in STEM education in K-12 and higher education, with a focus on women and minorities to broaden the pool. Community colleges and nonprofit workforce development programs that provide industry certifications will be in high demand, and companies will provide financial access to for those in the lower income brackets to grow the talent pool. Programs that teach soft skills, critical thinking skills, and problem solving like in the maker movement or youth entrepreneurship will attract CSR dollars and focus. Finally, more companies will work to upskill their current workforce instead of hiring trained employees from the outside.

2. Companies will do more to keep their employees, and their customers, healthy.

Regardless of the outcome of the Affordable Care Act or programs that may replace it, companies are anticipating that healthcare costs will increase, and it is therefore more important than ever to keep their employees healthy. They also know that every dollar that their customers spend on healthcare and insurance is a dollar not be spent on their products or services. While this trend is not new, we can expect many more bold announcements in the next 12-18 months from companies committing to their employees’ and communities’ health and well-being.

What were once perks for employees only in Fortune 500 companies will now become mainstream, like private gyms and on-site medical care. Employee bonuses and incentives for healthy behaviors and preventative care will become common place. Medical screening and community-based health fairs will be offered locally by companies who are not in the health care sector. Finally, housing, education, and human services organizations will be asked to integrate the provision of health care into their existing programming, and will be provided with increased corporate funding to do so.

3. Companies will go above and beyond regulatory obligations and take public stands on social issues, because millennial workers and consumers will hold them accountable for their corporate citizenship record.

In its 2016 study on Business and Politics, Global Strategy Group found that 81% of Americans believe that corporations should take action to address important issues facing society, and 88% believe that corporations have the power to influence social change. Further, 88% of millennials want to work for companies whose values reflect their own values, and taking a public stance on issues like pay equality, LGBTQ rights, and other human rights drives net-net brand favorability.

For example, we recently saw brands who came out in opposition to North Carolina’s “bathroom law” gain favorability across industries. We’ve seen very public boycotts of companies whose stands are more regressive, like Hobby Lobby. And while regulations in areas including environmental sustainability, community development, or safety may loosen as a result of the Republican wave, companies who retreat from their commitments in these areas face swift and painful consumer backlash. Corporate social stances may not have much influence in Washington over the next four years, but they will have influence everywhere else — more companies will take a stand and communicate their positions on social issues, and they will be rewarded on their balance sheet for doing so.

4. Collective impact, increased collaboration, and new methodologies will continue to gain favor and drive the CSR agenda forward.

The days of making an impact as a sole player in a hierarchical organization are over. No individual program can solve the complexity of problems or attract enough attention to make a dent in societal issues or public sentiment. There is too much noise on social media, too much competition for CSR talent, and too many stakeholders in any single issue for one company to act a lone ranger. Like politics before it, the discipline of CSR requires deep and meaningful partnerships with a range of stakeholders, sometimes odd bedfellows. Further, CSR initiatives can no longer be led inside by just Government Affairs, Public Relations, Community Relations, Human Resources or Marketing teams, but must align and integrate all of these functions in order to have the desired impact. In short, CSR methodology must be revolutionized in order to really address the issues just ahead on the horizon.

Externally, corporate responsibility will continue to shift from individual impact to collective impact, and the collection of partners for any one initiative will expand. The most powerful and enterprising initiatives will include participation from companies from across industries, foundations, nonprofits, government, associations, and the public, partnering to influence opinions, demonstrate impact, and change lives. CSR and nonprofit programming will adopt new ways of thinking and problem solving – borrowing techniques that drive industry innovation like Design Thinking and Lean principles. Old cultural norms that shackle innovation in various fields – large foundations, institutes of higher education, traditional nonprofits, or corporate hierarchies – will be challenged, modernized, and democratized. Because our work is grounded in a vision for the future state of society, CSR professionals will find ourselves leading the pack to integrate partnerships that create collective impact.

So, Win, Lose, or Draw, corporate responsibility is more important than ever, and its impact has the potential to go further for our society than ever before.