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Q&A with Myung Lee: How Companies Can Help Unlock the Potential of their Cities

Originally posted on The Conference Board Giving Thoughts Blog

Myung Lee, executive director of Cities of Service, discusses how companies can play a role in solving the problems of the cities in which they work. Q&A hosted by Alice Korngold, co-editor of The Conference Board's Giving Thoughts Blog. 

More than half of the U.S. population lives in cities. Municipal services, therefore, are determining the quality of life for many Americans. At the same time, companies help define cities, and their employees and customers often call cities their home. This presents an opportunity and incentive for companies to support cities and their mayors in addressing the challenges they face, whether it is through financial support, skilled employee engagement, or long-term partnership.

Cities of Service is a national nonprofit organization that supports mayors and city chief executives in their efforts to engage local communities and residents, identify challenges, and solve problems together. Myung Lee, Executive Director of the organization, kindly answered my questions about how and why companies should become involved in their cities.

Q: Why cities? What makes cities an important focal point in seeking to address vital issues, like neighborhood revitalization, education and youth, health, preparedness and safety, veterans, and sustainability?

A: Cities are where people live. Today, 54 percent of people are living in cities around the world. In the U.S. alone, the 2010 Census found that 62.7 percent of the U.S. population was living in cities or incorporated places—approximately 193.6 million people. Municipal services, therefore, are determining the quality of life for many Americans. Success or failure of local government is felt personally because cities are where the rubber meets the road. If the garbage is not picked up or the schools aren’t teaching our kids, we look to our mayors—even if the problem is something that can only be fixed at the State or Federal level.

Cities are also where we see new ideas and innovations bubbling up. So many of our mayors are working on interesting initiatives that help them lead better and provide more effective services. Cities are the exciting places to be.

Q: Why should companies care about cities?

A: If 60+ percent of people in this country—and 50+ percent of people in the world—live in cities, then, as a company, your employees and customers are living in cities. And if you care about your employees and customers—and we assume all companies do—then you care about the cities they live in. At the same time, companies have been helping to define cities for a long time, whether it’s Amazon in Seattle, UPS in Atlanta or Comcast in Philadelphia. An ethos of a city makes it attractive to companies and their employees, and it’s in the best interests of a company to be based in a place where people want to live and work.

Q: What role can companies play?

A: I would start by talking to the city leadership to learn what priorities have been set by the mayor for the city, what help is needed to accomplish that goal, and where your company can fit into that process. Obviously your company can provide financial support for a particular city-driven initiative. But you can also provide your people. If a city is working to help its citizens lead healthier lives, you can offer to provide financial and human support towards the cleanup of empty lots and the creation of community gardens in underserved communities. You may even connect your customer base into the project or help to build cross-sector partnerships that move the needle on city challenges. The list goes on. As a company, it’s important to be introspective about the unique value and expertise you can offer, and to ask what interventions can be developed that set the city up for sustainable success.

Q: Is the involvement of companies really all that important? Can’t governments and nonprofits take care of problem areas themselves?

A: Your company is a member of the communities in which it resides, the same communities where your employees are working, living, and thriving. Therefore, your participation is critical. Our cities are facing many challenges and often without the necessary resources. Although many of our mayors across the country are doing incredible work, they cannot succeed alone. We hope you see your company and your people as essential parts of the city leader’s team.

Q: What level of interest do you need from a company? Is the role of the company’s leadership meaningful, and if so, how?

A: Of course it is! When working with the cities in our coalition, we require a strong commitment from leadership. The mayor and city executives need to be on board—willing to convene, to explain the challenges that need to be addressed, and inspire their people to participate in the process. This is a model that we think is necessary for companies as well. If your company wants to be involved as a partner for the city, we hope you’re involved from the leadership down. It’s no secret that employees will answer a call faster when it’s issued by the CEO. Finally, nothing speaks louder than when the CEO is personally involved in the project.

Q: How should companies go about choosing which issues to focus on?

A: You know what you know best. The area of a company’s focus on philanthropy and volunteering will probably include many factors that only you can determine. My recommendation would be for a company to assess its strengths, and offer those skills and resources to a city. Often, city employees won’t know enough about your business and expertise to know how to ask for help. I think a helpful framing question for you and others in your company could be: If you were running the city and had your current company’s resources and skills at your disposal, what would you do better?

Q: What’s your final advice to corporate foundations and people who have responsibility for CSR?

A: Cities can have an immediate and lasting impact on the lives of your employees and customers. With that in mind, approach the city as you would approach your business partners—what are they trying to accomplish and can you help them succeed? Will your city partner help you accomplish your goals? As with any relationships, we advocate direct communication and honesty when establishing these partnerships. Obviously, we aren’t advocating for any illegal favors or advantages, but being clear about internal motivations and priorities will go a long way.

Volunteers paint mural in Phoenix, AZ
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