Before the pandemic shut down all gatherings, Union Hall in Cincinnati was a hub of innovation and ideas. Members of the city’s startup community would descend upon the co-working and event space downtown by the hundreds, to hear local entrepreneurs and business leaders discuss sustainability, raising capital, marketing products and more. Daily, co-workers would unpack their laptops, side by side, and occasionally network.

But as everyone went home in March 2020, the organizations behind Union Hall quickly made the space into another kind of community effort — a mask-making operation that pulled together the talents of a range of startups, such as Polar Cloud, which provided 50 of its 3D printers. In short order, the operation was turning out 2,100 masks per week for hospitals, senior care centers, first-responders and others. 

“It’s a great example of taking startup ingenuity and translating it to solve big challenges,” says Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cintrifuse, one of the backers of Union Hall. “Community brings external focus that helps organizations thrive.”

“Community” has a range of meanings and manifestations, but at its core, it is one of the most important ways companies can demonstrate good corporate citizenship — and hits on the “sustainability” part of environmental, sustainability and governance goals — because its outcomes can be so personal. “Often there are causes that companies care about that are very close to the communities they operate in,” says Ramesh Srinivasan, senior partner at McKinsey & Co.

Every company will bring its own considerations for where to invest in community impact, and these can range from a view on talent to bringing resources to communities in need, whether to aid in recovery from natural disasters or to build out a business ecosystem. “Community” may also be as prosaic as contributing corporate funds to local charities. That counts, too, says David Young, senior partner at BCG (see related interview LINK). “It comes to life for employees or customers and evidences the company’s purpose,” he says. Here are a few ways companies are investing in communities around the world.

Taking care of the neighbors

In Campbell’s Soup’s hometown of Camden, New Jersey, there are 32,000 people living below the poverty line. To help improve the well-being of those in its corporate surroundings, the company has contributed roughly $10 million since 2008 toward the development of affordable housing, support for local businesses, work opportunities, and access to healthy food. Campbell’s also participates in the local Block Supporter Initiative, a program that aims to build a sense of community through garden-planting days, neighborhood celebrations, and a house decorating contest meant to help residents develop a sense of pride.

Backing projects that multiply community efforts

When the pandemic impacted local residents in Sao Paulo who lost their jobs, many of them reached out to the P&G office there for help. “We wanted to do more than just give money,” says Marjorie Texeira, senior communications manager in Brazil. “I wanted to multiply the effect.” 

The first idea was to support a group at the University of Sao Paulo in its efforts to develop a low-cost ventilator to help with covid patients and stem the impact of the pandemic. Texeira and her team brought in industry and local connections to get the ventilator into market, and tapped a small budget from the brand teams to do it.

The success built on itself, leading to a “social accelerator” that would give resources such as products, time or connections, along with some minimal funding, to applicants. The accelerator launched in July and had 300 proposals by fall. The team picked 30 that met goals of social impact, including a program that paid residents to recycle, and a job board that helped women find work from home.

Creating community within

BCG’s David Young attributes his company’s strong ranking as a place to work to its employee affinity groups centered around a range of interests from soccer to stories to the Olympics to LGBTQ. “It’s one measure of building communities within our employee base that enhance the experience of being part of this company,” he says.

Affinity groups can also support retention and recruiting. Financial firm Fidelity, for one, has a robust group for veterans, Fidelity Veteran Employee resource group, or FiVE, which actively seeks out talent from the veteran population, among other activities.

Aiding communities after traumatic events

When Germany flooded in July 2021, thousands of people were left stranded or without power. P&G’s Pampers plant was in the thick of it. Some 1,200 employees worked at the factory in the flooded Noordrhien-Westfalen region. To support rescue efforts, the plant was turned into a hub for firefighters, Red Cross volunteers, and others. Members of the community were invited to use the facility’s bathrooms and internet connection and the kitchen churned out meals around the clock. P&G hygiene products were distributed freely and the company provided relief funding, as well as donating one million diapers. 

Empowering locations to improve their communities

Giving typically happens at the corporate level, where funds are centralized and significant enough to have impact. But community engagement often calls for activation on the ground. 

Around the world, Walmart boasts stores in 10,500 cities and towns. To support the communities in which it operates, the company gives $1.4 billion to charities and aid organizations. And in 2019, the retail giant went further, giving $5,000 to each of its US locations, to donate to organizations and programs working to make change in their communities.