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Socially Responsible Business

Have You Asked Them What They Need?

Corporate social responsibility programs vs. community partnerships.

Drawing on local knowledge to define and address a community’s challenges seems like a no-brainer. Who better knows the problems, past efforts, available assets, and potential talents than local residents? Yet, traditionally community engagement has not been the main approach for corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts in the United States. Corporations have focused on what they can do for rather than with communities. A new initiative in Cleveland, the PNC Fairfax Connection, offers a new model for creating shared value through community partnerships.

From CSR’s roots in the late 60s to the present, we have moved from passive philanthropy to more proactive approaches that integrate CSR into overall business strategy. Corporations are finding that aligning the interests of all stakeholders delivers significant economic, brand, and cultural value over the long term. Goldman Sachs, for instance, commits not only money, but also employees’ time and expertise to provide financial and management education and capital to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Similarly, the travel company G Adventures developed a women’s weaving cooperative in Peru. G Adventures brings its travelers to the cooperative to meet the women and buy their textiles. All parties benefit—the community, the travelers, and G Adventures.

Community partnership takes this idea to the next level—a corporation works with local citizens, government, nonprofits, and businesses to regenerate a financially struggling community to mutual benefit. The PNC Fairfax Connection demonstrates this model in action.

PNC_Fairfax_Connection_ESI_Cleveland

At the PNC Fairfax Connection, projections on the building’s exterior reflect the people of the community and the activities taking place inside. (Photos by PNC)

In 2010, PNC Bank asked ESI Design to help design a community center in Fairfax, a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Cleveland that had long faced economic hardships. PNC is extremely active in Cleveland and has strong ties to the city’s cultural, educational, and social nonprofit organizations. Unlike other CSR efforts, PNC and ESI agreed that this center should be designed not only for, but also with community members.

PNC invited community leaders, including local pastors, small business owners, community college administrators, and staff from local nonprofits to identify needs within the community. Technology and job training, education, financial education, and a desire to preserve local culture and heritage topped the list. Greg Roberts, head of the Fairfax Business Association, expressed the urgency felt by many. He emphasized the need for training in the bio-tech, construction, and medical fields, saying “Workers here need to prepare themselves for the future or the future will pass them by.”

PNC_Fairfax_Connection_ESI_Cleveland_youth_technology

Young people receive invaluable technology training while helping preserve their neighborhood’s rich cultural history.

Working with PNC and the Fairfax community, ESI developed the physical and media designs for the center and the programs that addressed the community’s concerns. We envisioned the center as a communal hub—a connecting point for local residents, organizations, businesses, and PNC. We developed most programs in partnership with a local organization to strengthen and avoid duplication of efforts. The name itself reflects the bonds we hoped to forge.

To invite wider community participation, we held a series of pilot workshops that targeted every age group and encouraged intergenerational interactions. These included:

  • PNC financial education for adults and small business owners
  • A school-readiness program for preschoolers
  • Community Scrapbook—participants scanned family photos and created digital scrapbooks
  • Community Map—small business owners created listings and posted them on Google Places
  • Media technology training workshops put digital video cameras in teens’ hands, then sent them out to videotape local choirs and interview the neighborhood’s oldest residents

The pilot workshops piqued community interest. Awareness spread by word-of-mouth and built an audience long before the center’s opening in September 2012. The center now offers an extensive calendar of programs that continue to expand and evolve with ongoing feedback from community members.

PNC Fairfax Connection draws strength from its partnerships. While traditionally PNC has given financial support to many local NGOs, the new programs allow partners to bring their strengths to the table and meet on equal terms. New partnerships are on the horizon, including Cleveland Public Library, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Cleveland Browns football team.

PNC_Fairfax_Connection_ESI_Cleveland_community_scrapbook

The Community Scrapbook program encourages younger and older family members to share their family’s stories.

An assessment strategy built into the project will enable PNC to evaluate the Connection’s impact over time. Pre-opening employment and education statistics along with resident interviews yielded baseline metrics and information on awareness of the PNC brand. Over the next several years, the assessment will be repeated and the results compared to track change.

The PNC Fairfax Connection holds the promise of benefitting all parties. Fairfax residents have acquired an invaluable, free educational resource. Local nonprofits have found a good partner with strong management skills and the resources to invest in the community in a meaningful way. PNC Bank, in helping raise the economic opportunities of the community, is creating relationships with community members who will turn to PNC for their financial needs as they embark on new life ventures.

Hopefully, projects like the PNC Fairfax Connection will become models for other CSR efforts. Corporations partnering with community members and local organizations strengthen communities from within. Ideally, going forward the first impulse will be, “Let’s ask them what they need.”

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COMMENTS

  • BY Lecia Grossman

    ON June 4, 2013 09:03 AM

    Thanks for this article! Can you tell me what methods they used to engage the community in the design? Did they use World Cafe, Future Search, surveys, community forums, etc. Curious about what skills organizations need to be able to engage the communities in the conversations. Thanks!

  • cynthia burger's avatar

    BY cynthia burger

    ON June 4, 2013 08:41 PM

    What a novel concept… asking people what they need. Community corporations can make a significant difference in the lives of many young people and professionals with disabilities if they make an effort to create an environment where employment and volunteer opportunities are made available ... as are scholarships. If you want to create viable communities and foster your own role within the community, creating partnerships and good PR… start addressing the unmet need to hire persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities… especially children with disabilities… often do not have appropriate access to first jobs, to internships, to practicums, to co=op positions and professional opportunities. If you want to change this… start in elementary school… have some involvement in ensuring that children are provided access to diagnosis and treatment, rehabilitation and technology. Often the children of immigrants have not obtained access to disability related diagnosis.or any disability intervention.. such things as vision or hearing issues are interpreted as being indications of learning disabilities. Children who do not have cognitive issues… but who are not literate… either in their mother tongue, English.. or sign language, have barriers enough… being placed within the same areas as persons with ADD and learning disabilities is not helpful… especially if those children have… undiagnosed brain injuries…

    If you start with ensuring that children with disabilities are supported in accessing technology training that is continuously upgraded..enabling them to use technology to compensate for their disabilities and to perform within their abilities… and provide inclusive environments where they can access first jobs, recreational opportunities and social lives… it will not be that difficult to provide inclusive environments for persons with disabilities in the workplace… not just providing physical inclusion but also the assumption of social inclusion.

    If you make every effort to ensure that the equipment and technology that you provide is safe… and you provide support for diagnosis and early intervention for children and teens… and vulnerable people who sustain head injuries…

    If you open your heart to the possibility that someone with a disability can care for your children…. can be your doctor… can work in your factory… can supervise your staff… can be professionally responsible…. can work effectively and well… give appropriate access to training, technology, support…

  • cynthia burger's avatar

    BY cynthia burger

    ON June 4, 2013 08:42 PM

    What a novel concept… asking people what they need. Community corporations can make a significant difference in the lives of many young people and professionals with disabilities if they make an effort to create an environment where employment and volunteer opportunities are made available ... as are scholarships. If you want to create viable communities and foster your own role within the community, creating partnerships and good PR… start addressing the unmet need to hire persons with disabilities. Persons with disabilities… especially children with disabilities… often do not have appropriate access to first jobs, to internships, to practicums, to co=op positions and professional opportunities. If you want to change this… start in elementary school… have some involvement in ensuring that children are provided access to diagnosis and treatment, rehabilitation and technology. Often the children of immigrants have not obtained access to disability related diagnosis.or any disability intervention.. such things as vision or hearing issues are interpreted as being indications of learning disabilities. Children who do not have cognitive issues… but who are not literate… either in their mother tongue, English.. or sign language, have barriers enough… being placed within the same areas as persons with ADD and learning disabilities is not helpful… especially if those children have… undiagnosed brain injuries…

    If you start with ensuring that children with disabilities are supported in accessing technology training that is continuously upgraded..enabling them to use technology to compensate for their disabilities and to perform within their abilities… and provide inclusive environments where they can access first jobs, recreational opportunities and social lives… it will not be that difficult to provide inclusive environments for persons with disabilities in the workplace… not just providing physical inclusion but also the assumption of social inclusion.

    If you make every effort to ensure that the equipment and technology that you provide is safe… and you provide support for diagnosis and early intervention for children and teens… and vulnerable people who sustain head injuries…

    If you open your heart to the possibility that someone with a disability can care for your children…. can be your doctor… can work in your factory… can supervise your staff… can be professionally responsible…. can work effectively and well… give appropriate access to training, technology, support…

  • Jill C Lynch 's avatar

    BY Jill C Lynch

    ON June 11, 2013 10:05 AM

    I am also interested in the specifics of how best to engage—echoing Lecia’s question:  “Curious about what skills organizations need to be able to engage the communities in the conversations.”  Not because it’s missing in the article—the pilot workshops provide some good examples for how to connect with and learn from the partner community. 

    My interest is because partnership initiatives, qualitative research, program evaluation is what I do.  I’m a strong proponent of projects like this one.  So I want to continue the discussion.  I’ve worked on several large and small partnerships (or outreach and engagement projects w/universities).  In the process I’ve researched the histories of many others.  Many are not successful and not sustained—however, ** often for reasons that can be addressed and their dangers mitigated.** 

    Thus, and I want to be very clear, my caution re: the difficulties is not meant to deter the re-framing of CSR initiatives in this direction.  I want to see many more projects like this one.  There are many win-wins here.  It will be helpful to build capacity re: the nitty gritty of engaging with diverse stakeholders, communities, and “interested others” (just as Lecia asked).  There is a set of skills that will facilitate projects such as this one and there are some underlying assumptions to bring to the surface to explore (some of which are explored in the article).  I’ve experienced the derailment of partnership projects because they’ve been approached in a cursory fashion (or were perceived to be inauthentic by external stakeholders) or simply because the capacity or time to ask good questions and listen to the responses weren’t present. 

    I am very pleased to see this article.  It takes up many important points that WILL increase the sustainability and impact of the Center.  I continued the discussion in a post on my blog (see link below)—as a researcher and program evaluator I am interested in how evaluation is built into programming, and I’m very interested in the promise of “big data” and the ways that focused, strategic analysis of data can increase social impact.  As a specialist in qualitative research, I am an advocate for its potential for developing the understanding, insight, and even building the necessary conditions of trust and rapport for a major partnership project to be sustainable and have a positive impact. 

    Ms. Gish, thank you for sharing this example and the opportunity to engage with the issues it raises.

    http://thinkqualitatively.blogspot.com/2013/06/have-you-asked-them-what-they-need.html

  • Clay Gish's avatar

    BY Clay Gish

    ON June 14, 2013 12:00 PM

    Thanks everyone for your interest in the article.

    As I noted in the piece, we began the conversation with community leaders. This was key. They, then, helped us recruit community members for eight pilot workshops. The workshops gave us an opportunity to speak directly with interested community members and hear what was most important to them. At the end of each workshop, they also filled out questionnaires to help us understand what aspects of the workshops they liked and what may have fallen short. They also suggested other workshops they’d like to see at the center. Now that the Connection is open, staff continue to hand out the surveys at the end of every class to make sure the center remains in touch with the community’s needs.

    ESI and PNC also decided to do a more formal survey to gather quantitative statistics and qualitative information from community members on what they believed the community needed. PNC hired a consulting group to work with us on developing and conducting the surveys (street intercepts and telephone interviews). This allowed us to reach beyond the pilot workshops to a broader segment of the community. The survey will be repeated over the next few years to assess progress and gain new insights.

    Since the Connection opened, the ongoing conversations between staff and community members and community partners has provided the best feedback of all. Nothing beats talking.

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