National Geographic defines an ecosystem as, “a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscapes, work together to form a bubble of life.” For me, the word conjures up images of the dioramas I created in elementary school, or a lush marshland like those along the Potomac River where I live. So, suffice it to say, I was surprised to hear this word come up repeatedly at a recent virtual meeting focused on the role of for-profit businesses investing in community health and well-being. This meeting, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and conducted by AcademyHealth, represented a culmination of a body of research that examined whether businesses could serve in an “anchor institution” role by investing in the health and well-being of the communities where they are located.
Several years ago, RWJF supported AcademyHealth to oversee this portfolio of research examining whether and how for-profit businesses could serve like anchor institutions in their communities. As the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health, RWJF supports efforts to build a national Culture of Health that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity for health and wellbeing. One area of focus has been on engaging private sector leaders to become champions of health equity, in workplaces and local communities. Important to this work is the idea of collective leadership—working together across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors and working with people who have a shared vision to advance health equity.
As this portfolio comes to a close, we’re reflecting on what we have learned from the research, and from the members of the business community, economic and community development organizations, policymakers, researchers, and other relevant stakeholders we convened to better understand how business’ place-based investments can advance health, well-being, and equity.
Businesses are part of an ecosystem that can advance this work with others.
We learned through this work that whatever actions businesses are taking, they are doing so in partnership with others – be it philanthropy, government, community and economic development entities or other companies. Like other ecosystems, each of these partners and stakeholders has an important role to play in catalyzing business investments in health. For example, building relationships with businesses, supporting policies and programs that support business investments in health, providing opportunities for shared-learning and advice, and developing standardized measures to better understand business impact can accelerate and augment business investments in health.
Like other ecosystems, we’re all in this together.
A critical feature of an ecosystem is interdependence. While all organisms must work together to form a bubble of life, the converse is true when even one entity is struggling. This portfolio of work began as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, and while the pandemic presented logistical challenges to the research work underway, it further underscored the interdependence between business and community. In the blog post announcing this work in the summer of 2020, we referenced the “symbiotic” relationship between community health and business performance, noting, “As community health fails, so, too, does business success.” This interdependence remains as true today as it was then. Yet, businesses are arguably more aware of this interdependence now, after two and a half years of adjusting business models, product offerings, and staffing arrangements to adapt to an ever-changing threat to the environment. Maurice Jones, CEO of OneTen, an organization that aims to close the opportunity gap for Black talent in America, discussed investment in talent at the recent RWJF/AcademyHealth meeting, and he noted, “What the pandemic and the previous recession and other jolts to our system have taught us is that we are only as strong as our weakest communities, which means that our companies need to really be embracing this notion that their jobs are to be anchor institutions because we are so interdependent.”
Mahlet Getachew, Managing Director of Corporate Racial Equity at PolicyLink, delivered a keynote address on businesses’ role in advancing racial equity and economic equality at the recent RWJF/AcademyHealth meeting. She described recent work by PolicyLink and others to create a CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity that “aims to connect all of this great intention that we see in the private sector with really transformational and long lasting change on equity. It guides business leaders beyond narrow diversity and inclusion commitments to enterprise-wide action by recommending critical levers that leaders can pull to play a productive role within the communities in which they operate.” Getachew noted that we’re in a time of unprecedented shifts in the priorities of American workers and the public, citing the famous Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual global trust and credibility survey, which declared in 2022 that “societal leadership is now a core function of business.”
Interdependence creates opportunities for shared value and mutual benefit.
And while shocks to an ecosystem threaten its existence, benefits or opportunities also have ripple effects that can reinvigorate the system. The interdependence between business and community success creates an opportunity for mutual benefit and shared value between businesses and the communities where they are located. For example, RWJF grantees Howard Wial and Peter Eberhardt at the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) explored the motivations and strategies of for-profit corporations’ engagement as anchor institutions with lower-income communities. They developed a report that included a case study on Fort Wayne Metals, a privately owned manufacturer of medical grade wire, cables, and tubes based in Fort Wayne, IN. In 2020, Fort Wayne Metals announced the need to open a new production facility. They partnered with community organizations to identify and address employment barriers such as transportation, recruitment and hiring strategies and ultimately decided to locate the new facility in southeast Fort Wayne and recruit and hire from the surrounding neighborhoods. Such actions represent a departure from “business as usual,” as Fort Wayne Metals considered the shared value and mutual benefit to the business and the community of locating the new plant in the community where they would hire workers to alleviate the barriers residents faced.
Other work in this research portfolio suggests that businesses have many strategies to invest in health, beyond just charitable donations. Other approaches could include funding and financing place-based investments, building and land donation, offering technical assistance and expertise, workforce development and job training, diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives, and supporting policies that promote public health.
How can businesses advance community health and equity?
Participants in the AcademyHealth virtual meeting were asked to engage with two questions over the course of the two-day meeting. The first question sought to surface participants’ ideas for the most promising ways for businesses to invest in their communities. On the second day, participants were asked to rank the suggestions with a particular consideration for the ideas that were mostly likely to advance community health and equity. Participants coalesced around these three ideas:
- Invest in areas where people's ability to thrive is hampered, such as childcare, transportation, and affordable housing.
- Make a commitment to inclusive and local hiring as well as purchasing.
- Encourage/support businesses to participate as anchor organizations by enacting system-level change.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the highest ranked ideas cover all aspects of the business/community ecosystem: the place, the people, and the policies. There is tremendous potential for business, working together with others, to advance the health, well-being, and equity of our communities, with benefits accruing to all actors in the ecosystem.