Mirage in the Middle of the City: Hear Out the Business Case for Supporting Social Causes

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Mirage in the Middle of the City: Hear Out the Business Case for Supporting Social Causes

Aiding homeless people in places like Detroit helps the entire community – including the businesses that lend a helping hand. Photograph: ManaVonLamac Photograph: ManaVonLamac/Getty Images/iStockphoto
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Mirage in the middle of the city: Hear out the business case for supporting social causes @GM @Guardian http://bit.ly/2b8Hcfv
Thursday, August 11, 2016 - 11:05am

CAMPAIGN: GM Philanthropy

CONTENT: Article

It was a cool, crisp sunny morning as I drove into downtown Detroit. The Renaissance Center, an iconic building on Detroit’s skyline that’s large enough to have its own zip code, rose quickly in my view and beckoned me to start the day. My mind was in full business mode at that point.

Like every workday, I had my must-do list memorized and was ready to make a difference. It’s as if driving on the Lodge Freeway under Cobo Hall helps me focus – a sort of tunnel vision, if you will. However, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Ron.

Ron frequents the Pope Francis Center, where I volunteer, and he was looking up at the RenCen, too. I could only see his shoulders and head as the rest of his body was behind a raised grass lot. That must have been where he slept the night before. Ron is homeless.

The contradiction of both of us looking at the RenCen immediately struck me. What I saw as a symbol of economic power and my place of work was just an optical illusion to Ron. He’s not welcome there. The RenCen – and any of Detroit’s many other skyscrapers and the cars driving by – are all mirages in the middle of the city to him.

As I’ve reflected back on that morning, it has occurred to me that the thousands of people coming downtown to work every day, including myself, rarely if ever give a second thought to the homeless. We see right past them as if they don’t exist. Or if we do notice, we go out of our way to avoid them.

This is a missed opportunity, because homelessness and other social issues impact business. For businesses to thrive, the communities in which they operate need to flourish. Otherwise businesses will not achieve their maximum long-term value.

Homelessness is an economic problem affecting all of society. There are 3.5 million homeless people in the US. In Detroit, the homeless population comprises about 20,000 people. The social costs incurred for each homeless individual is significant, ranging from $16,000 to $40,000 per year. For Detroit, that calculates to $320m to $800m, and it’s borne by everyone in the community – everything from healthcare costs to social services are supported by taxpayer dollars. Those entering a shelter or a housing program are taking the first step on the long road to stability, while helping Detroit take another step toward becoming the city we all know it can be.

In December, General Motors helped to host an open house for about 25 metro Detroit-based businesses at The Empowerment Plan. This Detroit nonprofit employs previously homeless women to sew coats that transform into sleeping bags, made for the homeless. Two companies – GM and Great Lakes Filters – explained how they were working with the group in ways that helped their own businesses save money and reduce environmental impact, while rebuilding the community through empowerment.

For Detroit or any city to reach its maximum potential, for the highest level of livability, it has to effectively address its social issues. Every stakeholder has a role to play, including businesses.

As Pope Francis recently said in Ladato Si, his encyclical focusing on care for our common home: “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

Companies and communities remain connected through the people who live or work in them. It becomes personal. I’m an employee of GM and a community member of Detroit. All citizens of our town have a responsibility to one other. If we don’t accept this, the city will be held back.

The business case for addressing environmental issues is fairly mature, well defined and easily translated into financial results that impact a business’ bottom line. However, addressing social issues gets positioned only in the moral realm of “it’s the right thing to do”. We must move it into mainstream business practices, just as environmental causes were decades ago.

The opportunity lies in how business can create positive social impact through their talent, outreach and operations, demonstrating that they are driven by a greater purpose versus solely shareholder return. This will strengthen communities and, in the end, deliver business value.

Reposted from TheGuardian.com/General-Motors-Partner-Zone with permission. 

Keywords: Volunteerism & Community Engagement | Business & Trade | Corporate Social Responsibility | David Tulauskas | Detroit | GM | General Motors | Green Business | People | Pope Francis Center | Renaissance Center

CAMPAIGN: GM Philanthropy

CONTENT: Article