The purpose of The Policy Circle Engagement Guides is to provide context and resources related to local engagement opportunities, so that any organization, group, or individual can participate in what’s happening in the community in which they operate and live. This opens opportunities to be a part of the fabric of the community, and build a network of local community members, all of which will ultimately improve business outcomes. This guide focuses on local businesses and entrepreneurs, their role in the community, and the ecosystem of relationships between local government, community, business and employees.

What is the Role of Businesses in the Community?

Local businesses – from entrepreneurs, to small- and medium-sized businesses, to branches of large businesses – have been the lifeblood of neighborhoods since the Industrial Revolution for both their economic effect and other positive impacts on the community. Across the United States, small businesses create almost two-thirds of new jobs and employ almost half of the country’s private workforce. A study by the Chicago Federal Reserve found the “success of small businesses in any neighborhood is linked…to the extent to which businesses are connected to their regional economies,” as this allows businesses to build relationships as they also increase brand awareness and visibility.

Even large businesses that operate on a national or international platform are an important part of the fabric of a community by employing many people and impacting even more. According to Harvard public opinion polling on the expanded role of companies in civic and community engagement, 87% of those surveyed believed companies have the power to make a difference, and 79% believed companies should take action. Data from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer support this; 86% of respondents expect CEOs to speak out on societal challenges. In fact, according to the survey, business is the only institution seen as both ethical and competent. Many large corporations, including Gap, Fitbit, Chobani, and Target, have taken on civic engagement by encouraging employees to vote,  providing resources to register to vote or even making Election Day a paid-time-off holiday. Other large companies give employees volunteer time off to engage in the community. Emerson, a global technology and engineering firm, hosts “We Love STEM” days for students across the U.S. and elsewhere in the world to inspire the next generation of engineers.

Why it Matters

Businesses can actively engage with all community members that influence their operations. That includes customers, who may want to support businesses that show they care about the community; employees looking for organizations that live up to their mission and values; and local government officials who make decisions that can impact businesses that operate and serve the community. Forming and maintaining an ecosystem of relationships among all these relevant community stakeholders creates the opportunity for businesses to become thought leaders in their communities, create bonds among employees, encourage a value-based organizational culture, increase the morale of the business, and ensure their own growth and longevity. Wendy Woods explains how businesses are making substantial progress on some of the hardest challenges facing our society, and doing so profitably (15 min):


Business & Community

Businesses can serve as effective participants in building their communities by connecting with community members and promoting civic engagement. The Chicago Federal Reserve study recommends businesses invest in areas such as education or labor-force preparedness to assist and better integrate businesses into their neighborhoods. For example, companies in the Chicago area partner with Chicago CRED, an organization dedicated to reducing gun violence. The organization provides outreach, advocacy, and – with the partnership of businesses in the community – coaching, counseling, and workforce development opportunities.

Local businesses are social infrastructure institutions that “provide meeting grounds, they provide modeling and mentoring, and they provide meaning and purpose,” by allowing connections to develop. Such connections have been extremely beneficial in Flagler County, Florida, where the Flagler Education Foundation works with local businesses to incorporate mentorship programs, internship opportunities, and career exploration programs for students in elementary, middle, and high school. Because of the community relationships between the education system and local businesses, when local industries requested help filling a shortage of equipment operators, the Flagler Technical Institute began the Heavy Equipment Operator Technician Program for students. In Chicago, the Cristo Rey School’s Corporate Work Study Program serves students with limited economic resources. Students work for and earn nearly 70% towards the cost of their education, gaining valuable career experience, mentorship, and networking from the over 200 businesses that serve as partners for the program.

Communicating and understanding needs goes both ways, fostering a symbiotic relationship between businesses and the community. Businesses can promote civic engagement and give back to their communities by contacting the city or township regarding community concerns, and what they can do to make an impact. The Chicago Cubs have invested in their community by converting Wrigley Field into a food pantry in partnership with a local food pantry; delivering meals to local hospitals, clinics, and first responder sites for COVID relief; and organizing and hosting food and school supply drives for low-income communities and students. See The Policy Circle’s brief on Government, Community, and Sports Teams for more examples of teams reaching out to their local communities.

In neighborhoods with blighted areas or vacant land, engagement can turn these unused areas into places where people want to live, work, and play. Public art and green infrastructure such as parks and community gardens provide gathering places for recreational activities, special events, and festivals that can further engage other local vendors, artisans, restaurateurs, and community members. Examples include the High Line in New York, a mile-long park “that reclaimed an abandoned elevated railroad track” and became a tourist attraction. Art in Chicago’s Millennium Park, including the famous Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as The Bean, has had a similar impact on the local community.

Business & Policy

Local economies rely on their businesses, which means policies that impact businesses’ ability to stay open and hire workers have a direct effect on investment in the community. This creates an important relationship between businesses and policymakers. Businesses have a responsibility to themselves and their employees to educate themselves about public policy debates that may affect their business, and to bring their concerns to policymakers. For example, Katie Boyd Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, fostered relationships with other businesses in the private sector and with policymakers in the public sector to work towards expanding high speed broadband access in the state, which would make small businesses more competitive and attract more jobs.

There are many ways businesses can convene with community members and policymakers. In Los Angeles, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment built engagement between community members, including businesses, and policy makers into the fabric of the neighborhood by supporting LA’s 99 Neighborhood Councils. Neighborhood Council participation is open to anyone who lives, works, or owns property or a business in the neighborhood. Councils hold meetings in their communities and give community members the chance to have a say on important issues. Community consensus is then conveyed to decision makers including mayors, city councils, or departments. In Florida, Florida Civic Advance serves as a network to convene civic leaders, institutions, and organizations, facilitating citizen engagement with local government, supporting civic education, and building community.

Companies can also invite representatives at the local or state level to visit their business or organization and understand their story. Illinois’s Adopt-A-Legislator Program pairs urban legislators with county farm bureaus to help legislators understand rural life, the needs of farmers, and agriculture, which is Illinois’s largest industry, Bridging gaps between the local government and community members fosters stronger communication channels and a better understanding of community priorities, which can lead to constructive dialogue and solutions that promote resilient communities and human flourishing.

Framing Business-Community Engagement

  1. Align engagement with the mission of the business. What are its core competencies and values? What skills are valuable to the business?
  2. Survey the associates on how they volunteer their time or give back to the community. This will give a good sense of what associates are already engaged in and can align the organization’s priorities.
  3. What needle do you want to move in regards to engagement in your community What are the areas of greatest need in your community?
    • Environmental and beautification efforts, such as green spaces
    • Social Infrastructure, such as festivals, special events, and programs
    • Economic Opportunity, such as partnering closely with K-12 schools and universities to create classroom-to-career pathways
    • Building Blocks of a Good Life, such as health, housing, childcare, and security
    • Civic Responsibilities, such as encouraging customers and employees to be informed about issues and candidates and to vote, or organizing roundtable discussions and inviting speakers on policy issues.
  4. What are the expertise and treasures that your organization and its associates can share?
    • Do you outline on your website or social media what your associates are doing in the community and the projects the business is part of that will enhance a community and its members?
    • Are you on Nextdoor, Facebook, or the websites/directories of the area in which you operate?
  5. How much time, effort, and funding can realistically be allocated to give back to the community? Is there a champion who could lead the effort?

Next Steps

  • Measure
    • Is there a neighborhood business association in your community?
    • Are there labor force training or mentorship programs?
    • Does the local high school offer an internship or job shadowing program?
    • What is the state of green spaces and parks in your neighborhood?
  • Identify:
  • Reach out: Find allies and build community networks.
    • Talk to community members to see their visions for the community and understand their concerns.
    • Meet the leaders of your local community organizations
  • Plan: Set milestones, don’t try to do it all at once.
    • When are major local events and festivals in your community?
    • When are town hall meetings held?
  • Execute:
    • Engage with other local businesses or entrepreneurs
      • Consider purchasing work from local artisans to feature in your office space
      • Consider working with others to sponsor a local event or engage in an important initiative
    • Align community engagement with company or organization values
      • If your company commits to sustainability, is there an opportunity to  contribute to green spaces in the community?
      • If your company specializes in employee training, is there an opportunity to sponsor local hiring and training efforts?
    • Work with local schools to sponsor education initiatives
      • Is there room for workforce training or career development opportunities in school curriculum?
      • Can your company offer internship opportunities or mentorship programs?
    • Get involved in community initiatives
      • Listen and learn about the community, or contact the township to see important initiatives that are in place to understand major concerns
      • Consider creating an engagement scorecard – what are the main areas for concern, what’s being done, and is there room for beneficial involvement?

Additional Resources