A conversation about community: from left, Lee Wheeler-Berliner of the Colorado Workforce Development Council, Shannon Armbrecht of Western Union, Scott Dishong of Make-A-Wish Colorado, Ellen Valde of PwC, and moderator Tamara Chuang of the Colorado Sun (Photo by Tom Sandner)

Corporations don’t exist separate from the communities where they do business—and the value runs both ways. When business creates partnerships with non-profit organizations and government agencies, the combined leverage pays dividends in multiple ways, from the tangible (developing skilled labor) to the intangible (boosting employee morale). Yes, the return on investment (ROI) may be difficult to calculate. But building purposeful relationships in the community is essential at a time when customers and employees demand more from brands than just a product or a paycheck.

“Believe it or not, [community involvement] might be the one thing we don't measure ROI on,” said Ellen Valde, managing partner of Workforce of the Future at PwC’s (Pricewaterhouse Coopers) Denver office. “It is the one thing that we don't know⁠—what's our return on investment with this involvement? Because it's so important that the employees and the team members feel like they're giving, to feel like they have that purpose ... that's enough ROI for us as an organization.”

Meaningful community involvement is an integral part of the employee experience. But how should a company decide where to put its efforts? Focusing on causes and organizations that align well with business goals is key, according to the speakers in a panel discussion From Day One’s conference in Denver, moderated by Tamara Chuang of the Colorado Sun.

Shannon Armbrecht leads the people-development strategy team at Western Union, which has its world headquarters in Denver, where it has become increasingly active in the community, particularly in supporting education. But the 168-year-old company operates in more than 200 countries, with employees around the globe, so it focuses on communities globally as well. “What we do for a living is ‘move money for better.’ So we move money to help individuals and families and communities and education and NGOs.”

With that in mind, Western Union has created its own foundation, WU Gives, to focus on causes important to its employees⁠, who take an interest in the customers they serve. “With our employees, what we find is really important to them with moving money across the globe is supporting migrant workers, supporting refugee work and supporting education—specifically education for women, youth, and children,” she said.

Helping companies identify value-aligned causes is mission-critical for nonprofits. Scott Dishong, CEO of Make-A-Wish Colorado, believes this strongly. “It's my job to make sure that we're a good partner to our corporate partners. And you, as business leaders and as company leaders, need to build that type of relationship where you can tell your nonprofits what's important to you. When I hear [Shannon] say you move money⁠—we move people. We've got a kid, a refugee from Somalia, who was just diagnosed with cancer and he wants to go to Mecca to pray. So that's a perfect opportunity for Make-A-Wish and Western Union to come together. But it's on us as nonprofits to know what you’re looking for in a partnership so that we can bring those opportunities.”

As managing director of the Colorado Workforce Development Council, Lee Wheeler-Berliner sees the community/corporate relationship through the lens of government involvement, which for a long time was government-initiated and driven. “We flip that script in the state of Colorado, to say that government is here to support you,” he said. “One of the primary vehicles we utilize to do that is a concept called sector partnerships, where industry is coming together. Business leaders are at the center table, setting the agenda. Then government can listen and talk about opportunities.”

An example of this is Subaru’s partnership with the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, a new technical high school in South Denver. There are a lot of Subarus on the road in Colorado, and servicing requires skilled technicians. The company donated two new vehicles to use for training⁠—and now Toyota is planning donations, too, said Wheeler-Berliner.

PwC, which directs much of its community involvement towards financial literacy, sees myriad returns on its investment. Teaching kids about bank accounts and even coding is a kind of “upskilling” that engages current employees while also nurturing a talent pipeline for the future. In a tight labor market, “it’s a war for talent out there,” says Valde. “So that's important.”

Cynthia Barnes has written about everything from art to zebras from more than 30 countries. She currently calls Denver home