The culmination of the 2006 Best Bosses Conference & Celebration, held September 27, 2006 in Chicago, was a Plenary Address delivered by Michelle Obama. Obama is Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Her topic was “Creating Relationships Between Business and Community.”

Obama was selected by former Hospitals President and CEO Michael Riordan to head the organization’s Office of Community Affairs, and lead the Hospitals’ efforts to broaden its relationship with its neighborhood – Chicago’s South Side – and the city at large. As Obama said, her previous experience at the university (she was associate dean of students and later executive director for community affairs at the Hospitals) and that fact that she is a native South Sider gives her a “unique perspective of being both an insider and an outsider” to her employer.

mo_plen_addressIn explaining why businesses and nonprofits alike should look at building a community relations program, Obama stressed that these types of programs are becoming more common in the U.S., with approximately 90 percent of large domestic companies investing some time, resources and funds in efforts to better relate to their communities. She also stressed that such efforts should make good business sense in addition to fulfilling the notion of being a good neighbor. This speaks to programmatic sustainability and the extent to which programs are line items in the budget. “When times are lean, when budgets are tight,” Obama said, “community relations activities are the first to go.”

The benefits for organizations that institute community relations programs include increased market visibility, strengthened brand value and enhanced reputations as good corporate citizens. The latter benefit has become increasingly important to many entities, and for good reason: A 2005 Golin Harris survey found that 40 percent of respondents take good corporate citizenship into account when making purchasing decisions. Obama said that focusing on community relations can also benefit employees by developing greater teamwork and raising the level of morale and company pride. For potential hires, such a focus can even better position a business as an employer of choice.

By definition, community relations efforts should benefit the organization’s surrounding community. Benefits here include, but are not limited to, adding new skills and energy to problem solving, supplying a source of volunteers, building better links among the business network and improving the community’s quality of services.

After taking into account the above-mentioned considerations, Obama said that the next step involves the organization integrating the community relations focus into its mission. In the Hospitals’ case, this entailed Obama and the senior management team using language from the Hospitals’ mission to create a separate but connected mission exclusively for her department, the Office of Community Affairs:

The University of Chicago Hospitals Office of Community Affairs is committed to building strong and meaningful relationships with the surrounding community and recognizes that these relationships enhance its position at the forefront of medicine.

Tackling this issue enables the company to develop a comprehensive community relations strategy, Obama said. Steps to consider here include building top-down support, defining and knowing your community, benchmarking peers/identifying resources and defining success. For Obama and the Hospitals, this intricate, behind-the-scenes work translated into a year and a half of taking a multifaceted look at the South Side of Chicago. For instance, many people think of the South Side as a mecca of great jazz and blues music. However, that perception doesn’t even get past the 1960s – what has defined the community since then? Also, the South Side is a predominantly working-class neighborhood. Yet, as Obama explained, there are “pockets of relative affluence” within that community. These are the types of microscopic findings that organizations that are serious about implementing community relations programs must achieve.

Obama also used pictures of two very different homes to illustrate an important point: Perceptions leave powerful imprints on a community, but they can also be used as an organizational tool to approach that community. Obama explained that the dilapidated two-flat house in the first of her pictures and the beautiful, refurbished graystone in the second are across the street from one another in the same South Side neighborhood, symbolizing the area’s socioeconomic diversity. “The lens through which you choose to view your community defines the possibilities,” Obama said. “If you can only see the deficits, it’s very difficult to understand what you can do and how you can benefit as a company.”

After summarizing the community relations programming that she and the Hospitals have created and implemented – including pediatric mobile home units as well as school “Principal-For-A-Day” and community fitness programs – Obama concluded her address by showing hard numbers that indicated to the Hospitals’ lenders and donors that their outreach efforts are having a measurable impact. Case in point: The Hospitals’ roster of volunteers has doubled in the last three years, which means a higher level of preventative care in the community and, ideally, lower hospitalization rates. “We’ve gone from [the notion of] ‘community service is the right thing to do’ to ‘community service is a critical part of keeping our doors open’,” Obama said.