Business leaders want to understand community issues, work more directly with lawmakers on collaborative solutions

COURTESY: BBPDX - Ashley Henry, Executive Director of Business for a Better Portland.

In January, I challenged the business community to make 2019 a year of civic engagement.

Since then, CEOs have written to and called legislators, advocating for funding for education investments; professionals across industries have devoted time to learning the nuances of residential zoning; and dedicated members committed to work with our civic leaders to play a part in the future of our region's transportation system.

Challenges facing our community — rising housing costs, increased traffic congestion, and a severe economic imbalance — similarly hamper businesses of all sizes to reach their full potential. As a result, many in Portland's business community — CEOs, board members and those starting their careers — acknowledge their responsibility to engage in the civic process to improve the lives of their employees, customers, neighbors and future generations.

While the desire to collectively work to improve our city exists — the path to productive, efficient civic engagement isn't always clear.

Traditionally, when businesses got involved in the civic process, their primary goal was advocating for laws and policies that directly benefited their bottom line. This typically meant lobbying by paid professionals or direct contact with elected officials. Once the U.S. Supreme Court expanded companies' ability to spend money to influence elections through the 2010 Citizens United decision, corporate giving to Political Action Committees (PACs) influencing policy became commonplace.

If a company's leadership was moved to give back to the community, they typically created a charitable foundation or made a donation to a nonprofit or community organization. These approaches have a worthy place in the civic landscape, but philanthropy is not a replacement for public policy that creates better community outcomes.

In recent conversations, we've heard a consistent message: Beyond giving money, leaders want to understand community issues and work more directly with lawmakers on collaborative solutions.

In 2016, when Business for a Better Portland was still just an idea, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer shared valuable insights with me. He discussed the role of the 'Vice-president of going-to-meetings' — a person whose responsibility within a company was plugged into civic issues. They had time to meet with elected officials, attend public meetings, and represent the company in the community and were part of how a company built and strengthened its relationships and involvement in the community.

We need a different model to make it easy for business leaders passionate about giving back to their communities to do just that.

Thankfully, as a new generation of business leaders are innovating market solutions, they are iterating on the model for civic engagement as well.

Take for example, Pledge 1% — an organization whose sole focus is to encourage companies of all sizes to give back to their communities.

Brad Feld, a partner at the Foundry Group, a venture capital company based in Colorado, says from Day 1, the company, which challenges businesses to pledge 1% of their profits, equity, product and/or employee time back into their communities, has had a laser focus on helping companies be specific and intentional about giving back.

"We believe that as business people, it's imperative to engage in meaningful ways right where we are," he says. "We have to invest in those communities in which we've built our success. This was the impetus for us to be part of founding and today, being major supporters of Pledge 1%, whose vision is to see companies of all sizes integrate giving back into their very DNA."

Feld says a few years back his community saw major funding cuts to nonprofits doing great work to serve struggling families and individuals. Businesses were able to fill that gap, standing up for their community through the 1% pledge.

The Foundry Group has brought Pledge 1% to Portland through their investment in software company, Cloudability. A founding BBPDX member, Cloudability has always been clear about its role in supporting the many community organizations working directly to improve our community.

From assembling supply kits for homeless neighbors to learning what support would be most meaningful for those experiencing homelessness, to testifying in Salem, Cloudability has found ways to listen to local organizations and advocate for systemic change.

In the end, it all comes back to a community that listens and learns. We not only need more stakeholders around a broader table, we need a more collaborative relationship with our elected officials. They must recognize that the business community is not a monolith but includes a diverse set of leaders and willing allies who prioritize authentic civic engagement over building large PACs.

This means we must engage on all levels, continually working to find new ways to invest back into the communities that make us strong — understanding that our success truly is connected to that of our communities.

Ashley Henry is the chief collaboration officer of Business For A Better Portland. She can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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