Community engagement in a new reality: A fresh take on decades-old work

Ellie Forman, Senior Vice President, Corporate Responsibility | Mesirow
January 2023

Through intentional work with social service agencies, Mesirow has – for 85 years – deeply engaged in Chicago and the global communities where we and our clients live and work. Our goal is to spark positive change via much-needed financial support, leadership on Boards and committees, mentorship, pro-bono sharing of our expertise and hands-on volunteering. Community engagement is important to our firm and has also proven important to our clients and associates in business – we do better as a business community when our neighbors thrive.

I recently had the honor of participating in a panel discussion with the distinguished Executives’ Club of Chicago. I was joined by three esteemed peers in community engagement: Dominique Jordan Turner, VP of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) at Loyola University Chicago; Ellen Ray, CEO of Chicago Cares; and Brian Fabes, Managing Director for Corporate Coalition (moderator).

This group was tapped to discuss “the new corporate partnership path,” including how corporate community engagement and strategic partnerships have evolved following two years disrupted by societal challenges.

Through our candid discussion, my colleagues and I concurred that, while the work and its imperative are not new, the focus, goals and vernacular around that work have shifted.

Taking a step back, we know that a foundational truth is that social service agencies’ core work has for decades served Black, Latino and other under-resourced communities (including individuals with disabilities and the LGBTQ community, for example). As such, longstanding corporate investment in underserved communities has also targeted these populations. And with good reason – these are the communities, neighborhoods, families and people who, most often, face social inequity and injustice along with being disproportionately under-resourced. This is where investment is needed most.

In 2020, two noteworthy catalysts for change occurred:

  • Due to the pandemic, recent national progress in closing the gap in the Black/White labor force was reversed.1

  • Systemic racial disparity was brought into sharp focus, both due to disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 and increasing number of social justice conversations.

In many cases, these drivers shifted the way we look at corporate-community partnerships and led organizations to look inward and refocus their commitments.

We see these shifts manifesting in two significant ways:

  1. Corporations are now evaluating their community engagement commitment and partnerships through the lens of DEI in their workplaces and industries

    Organizations with a genuine, prioritized plan to embrace inclusive practices and expand the number of voices at the table are increasing the presence of diverse employees at all levels of their firms. The most successful organizations are intentional about constructing a more representative workforce by expanding their efforts to identify diverse professionals.

    Community engagement and philanthropic efforts not only align corporations’ values with the broader community, but also serve to strengthen DEI initiatives and as such, can play a crucial role in the recruitment and retention of diverse professionals.

    For instance, philanthropic partnerships that engage students as early as elementary school enable corporations to connect with future talent as they begin to dream about who and what they want to be, and how their natural talents can lead them there. In addition, connecting with the right universities and internship prep programs mutually benefit both parties, providing opportunities while identifying top diverse talent.

  2. Corporations are working harder to identify their “why,” an exercise that can be a powerful catalyst to shape workplace culture while more meaningfully advancing work in communities.

    As conversations about systemic racial disparities provide new context and urgency, individuals and corporate leaders alike have taken stock of their own legacy and impact.

    For some companies, this was finally being heard and acknowledged for their existing commitments. For some others, it meant a self-audit – a chance to ensure their workplace culture, DEI and community engagement efforts operate in an authentic and sustainable way.

    For many dedicated corporations in the Chicago community, asking “why” prompted a “doubling down” on decades of efforts, seeking to drive positive, lasting change at their firms, across our industry and in the neighborhoods where our clients and employees work and live.

    In Mesirow’s experience, this means engaging an external partner to audit our current DEI strengths and suggest opportunities for improvement. Additional steps include: expanding diversity at every level; deepening retention through high-value programs and benefits; listening and learning through ongoing training – on the topic of unconscious bias, for example – and finally, engaging meaningfully with strategic partners.

The panel concluded by noting our respective goals for future corporate engagements with civic nonprofits and social service agencies in Chicago. We also touched on how we are embracing new opportunities and partnerships.

At Mesirow, our guiding principle remains long-term, deep, and focused partnerships with impactful nonprofits that enable us to engage beyond financial contribution. This commitment includes:

  • More than 75 nonprofit partners receive strategic support from Mesirow’s executive-level leadership on Boards and committees – and that number is augmented as we expand across the ranks of our employee base and include nonprofits’ associate boards and committees.

  • 5,000 volunteer service hours by Mesirow employees in the southwest side neighborhood of Brighton Park over six years*.

  • 30 Black high school students will receive four-year, one-on-one mentorships with Mesirow employees through the LINK Unlimited Scholars program, launched in 2021.

  • Thousands of students receive much-needed school supplies annually due in part to employees’ personal donations to Metropolitan Family Services and volunteerism through Cradles to Crayons.

  • Mesirow’s longstanding partnership with Anixter Center provides full-time employment and a 10-week job training program, both enabling individuals with developmental disabilities to gain important career, technical and soft skills.

  • Emphasizing partnerships at the intersection of philanthropic and DEI commitments, such as Chicago United, with whom we have partnered for more than twenty years, and Lambda Legal, where our LGBTQ employee resource group chair also chairs the Emerging Young Leaders board.

Mesirow is proud to forge ahead alongside our esteemed peers, with a fresh look on decades-old, values-based commitment to our communities. By directly integrating our community engagement initiatives with our DEI objectives, we offer holistic service in our communities, while strengthening DEI in our industry and our firm.