To Solve Our Region’s Challenges, We Need Everyone at the Table

February 16, 2016
Nicky Goren

Motivated by the desire to help those in need, demonstrate good corporate citizenship and generate goodwill, business leaders throughout Greater Washington routinely engage with nonprofit organizations. They make contributions, sponsor and host events, promote employee giving and volunteering, and serve on boards. But attending galas, volunteering and even writing checks is not enough to solve our region’s most pressing and intractable social challenges.

The District has the widest gap between rich and poor in the nation — a gap that’s growing, not shrinking, throughout the region. Those without a college degree are seeing their wages falling at a much faster rate than the rest of the country. Roughly half of all renter households in our region are renting at unaffordable rates.

These challenges affect our region’s economic growth and competitiveness, which means it’s in everyone’s best interest — businesses, government and nonprofits — to come together to solve them. But I’m not sure we know how to do that.

This point was driven home for me last summer when the Meyer Foundation convened a series of working groups. Our goal was to invite business, government and nonprofit leaders with issue-area expertise to give us feedback on our proposed strategies for tackling these long-entrenched challenges.

We knew so many nonprofit leaders we couldn’t invite them all. We knew a far shorter list of government leaders. But, with a few exceptions, we didn’t know which business leaders to invite. Our network was siloed. This has to change, both for the Meyer Foundation and the region. We can’t keep working in isolation if we’re serious about building a region where everyone thrives.

I’m not suggesting the problem is a lack of cross-sector or regional collaboration. The problem is too much of this so-called collaboration is driven by the established agenda of one organization or sector.

At the Meyer Foundation, we believe many of the barriers and challenges facing low-income communities are the product of generations of systemic inequity, and that the region needs to have an open and candid conversation about racism before we can move from treating the symptoms of inequality to tackling its causes. Its new strategic plan includes three ambitious and interconnected goals:

• Create an adequate supply of housing that low-income individuals and families can afford.

• Ensure those in the bottom quartile of income build assets and increase financial security.

• Prepare youth and adults to obtain family-sustaining jobs.

Making real progress will take resources and expertise far beyond what any single organization or sector can muster. Business leaders support our region’s nonprofits in so many ways, but often as patrons rather than partners. To find solutions to our region’s challenges, we need full partners with the tremendous expertise and resources the business community can bring.

If you’re a business leader who would like to help the Meyer Foundation think outside our silo, email me at ngoren@meyerfdn.org.

Nicky Goren is president and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.

This op-ed originally ran in the Washington Business Journal for the week of February 15, 2016.