By: Richard Payonk, United Way of the Wabash Valley Executive Director
Since I retired from the for-profit business world and began full-time with our United Way, I am often asked for my opinion on what the Wabash Valley needs to become a vibrant, destination community. You know, one of those “best places to live” in Indiana. My answer might surprise you, but hear me out. It’s not a new convention center. It’s not a new jail, or new and updated high schools. It’s not a Target, or a Home Depot or any strong retail stores to back a shopping mall. It’s not an Air Show or national or local Track and Field competition. It’s not even a plea for more businesses with higher wages. It’s not more attention or economic aid from our state and federal government.
Don’t get me wrong—every one of these items will be a great step forward for our community and I’m excited about them and the caring people working for them—but they are not what we need first. I believe each of them will eventually be achieved, but could come sooner and with greater ease if we could take a more basic and important first step.
Our community can begin a steady and maybe even rapid ascent to “Best in the State.” I think any community can, but few do. Because for any community, it will only occur when the local businesses fully embrace Community Engagement as an important—maybe even the most important—part of their mission. I don’t mean five or ten of the top businesses in town, but all of the local businesses working together to embrace building the very community within which they operate.
What does this look like? It’s not just about money and donations or corporate sponsorships (yes, I know that sounds strange coming from the United Way guy). It’s about developing an internal culture in every business that allows employees the opportunity to engage in community building as part of their job. For a community to thrive, each business must do more than focus on “making their widgets” and the profits that those widgets generate. Rather, if we can develop a business culture that understands that when we let our employees’ passion for their community becomes fully engaged, there is no ceiling to the success that can be achieved for both widget production and community building. But what do I mean when I say “if we can develop…?” Sadly, we can’t do this. To build business culture, there is usually only one person driving the change…and that’s the local business leader—the top manager at each location that by their directives and words can build that business’s culture. We have some great ones in the Wabash Valley, but they need help from all of the rest.
Here’s the great news! From my own experience, I suspect that our local business leaders have already hired employees who are willing, able and passionate about giving back to their local community, but many of them don’t do it as part of their job because they are waiting for “The Boss” to hand them the reins. As a business leader in the Wabash Valley, you have the power to set loose a tremendous change for our community by empowering your employees to get involved. Allow them to volunteer…yes, even on their work time. Allow them to easily contribute to philanthropic causes important to them and to our local community…yes, supported through your business payroll. These simple steps only take a few minutes for a local business leader to support and begin a community transformation.
Our United Way has partnered with Maryland Community Church to provide business leaders a great opportunity to start building that culture. Serve the Valley, held on July 27th and 28th, is a community-wide volunteer effort that encompasses over 60 projects from 40 organizations. It has an ambitious goal to grow community engagement by seeking nearly 1,000 volunteers to help out with local non-profits. Our business leaders could really pave the way for enhanced volunteerism while also building a positive culture in their workplaces. Just encourage your employees to attend and join them in the effort.
How can you get started? Maybe by following the leads of one of your peers. Dottie King, our United Way Board President and President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College gave an example that I would love to see from more of our local business leaders. Dottie is as busy as any business leader I know, yet she took the time to write a 10-minute e-mail that warmly invited all of her employees to engage in the Serve the Valley event. That might have been enough, but she went further, providing an incentive for them to participate–volunteer in the morning and take the afternoon off! It’s really not as crazy as you might think. I used to do the same. I’ve known Dottie for years and can assure you that she knows that when employees feel good about the community engagement their workplace allows and encourages, then they also feel more productive and engaged in their workplace.
This could be the tiniest start to a great change in our community. I am challenging our business leaders to write this same kind of email to your employees and ask them to “get involved” in the Serve the Valley event—give them the “OK” to go do something they would enjoy. If you really want to see them engage, show them it’s OK by joining with them.
Show the Wabash Valley that you are ready for your business to Join the Fight. Employees from around the Wabash Valley can look at the project opportunities and sign up themselves or a team by going to This Link.