Most leaders discover they must first travel their own diversity journey before they can develop anything beyond a superficial understanding of people different from themselves. While it’s easy to donate money, that’s just corporate philanthropy. It’s needed, but it doesn’t allow for much engagement with the community on a personal level, and donations can be perceived as an obligation or an attempt to garner good public relations instead of true commitment. Diversity and inclusion at all levels works when those involved develop trust; to do so, direct engagement is mandatory.

Where, then, is the link between corporate diversity and community efforts? Chief Diversity Officers who are Trailblazers see many connections. According to Steve Bucherati, Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) at The Coca Cola Company, community involvement is an integral component of strengthening the brand. He explains, “Our brands are for everyone; it doesn’t matter whether you’re the President of the United States or the average Jane or Joe on the street. . . . You can’t buy ‘better’ Coke, no matter how rich. . . or who you are. The brand is truly inclusive. . . so we extrapolate from that and say, well that’s what we ought to be about as an organization. We ought to be as inclusive as our brands. We ought to be a company for everybody no matter who you are, what your background is, and what your experiences are. Then we take that mentality and try to drive that down into our marketplace, workplace, and community strategies.”

Michael Collins , former CDO at American Airlines expressed it this way: “… We talk about diversity as a continuum rather than an ending destination. It is something for which everyone is responsible, especially our leaders. In order to be a good leader, you need to be able to lead diversity and create inclusive environments.”

Some organizations have very specific community goals, while others support community projects as they surface because they generally see it as the “right thing to do.” Chief Diversity Officers who are Trailblazers  (CDO) help their organizations develop and clarify community involvement goals, and then they guide their leaders as they support the community agencies and projects that are in alignment with the company’s mission and values. Instead of using the scattered, “here today, gone tomorrow” approach, Trailblazers help their companies focus their efforts and resources—which creates the ability to measure outcomes and make adjustments where needed.  The more the organization can concentrate on its community involvement, the better its results will be.

Figure 9.1This graphic  illustrates the critical components of an effective community involvement process. First, the organization must become clear about their brand and their marketplace. This then allows collaboration of the CDO, business group leaders, and the community relations department in the goal-setting process. Once goals are set, communication, recognition, and rewards for involvement can be disseminated throughout the organization.

For example, Dell contributes in the communities where their employees live and work by developing community programs that promote digital inclusion and close the gap on the digital divide.

“We are committed to the belief that people around the world should have access to technology to learn critical skills and enhance their lives,” says former CDO Gil Casellas. Similarly, having built a global business on improving the effectiveness of written communication, Pitney Bowes has a vital interest in literacy and education. Their leadership believes that, by supporting literacy and education programs, the company can improve countless lives and strengthen the fabric of communities everywhere they are involved. Note that nowhere in these focus statements is there a mention of diversity and inclusion. There is no need, because these are overall business statements where diversity and inclusion is implicit.

When an organization has clear diversity and inclusion goals related to community involvement, its leaders’ and employees’ actions as community volunteers are more likely to elicit tangible results. When people know why they are serving their community—beyond it simply being the “right thing to do”—they’re able to increase their awareness of how they might address community challenges. Several of our Trailblazer companies require senior executives to serve the community, and this accountability is reflected in their salaries and bonuses.

Executives of Trailblazer companies see the payoff that comes with supporting the external community and are clear about the diversity connection.These leaders are willing to be a little vulnerable in order to understand that perspectives different from their own are not wrong—just different. Most leaders are accustomed to having people see things their way. By personally supporting community organizations that serve diverse constituents, executives are able to broaden their perspectives.

Our Trailblazers have found that becoming involved in global communities while supporting company goals is rewarding for employees, leaders, and the communities they impact. More often than not, “community” includes groups of people within certain locales, as well as groups with common characteristics. Deb Dagit CDO (retired) of Merck & Company proudly shared the following example of how community and employee teams are able to innovate:

“We have a CEO diversity and inclusion award  that we give on a global basis. It has given us a platform for employees at all levels of the organization not only to be recognized for individual efforts but team efforts as well, while articulating the business outcome.

“One of the teams that received recognition  put together the approach to getting a vaccine to prevent certain types of human papillomavirus [HPV]) into the marketplace. They went about gathering voices of the customer, and designing the campaign The approach was very multicultural. . . and respectful of different faiths, generations, and the role that mothers play in health care decisions. It was also respectful of young women themselves. They designed an extraordinarily effective campaign that led to remarkable uptake of the product and, at the same time, demonstrated in very subtle ways how you can do this in a way that is multiculturally sensitive.”

Guiding your company’s involvement in the communities it serves helps the business, engages leaders and employees while deepening their understanding of diversity and inclusion, contributes to the success of organizations served and ultimately provides all with focus and purpose.