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Place-Based Initiatives Address a Key Social Part of the Triple Bottom Line

Words by Nick Aster
Leadership & Transparency
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"Community is the core determinant of future path in life." - Kevin Jordan, SVP, National Programs, LISC (A Keynote Speaker at the Re+Vitalize symposium)

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Re+Vitalize symposium on "place-based initiatives" in Dallas -- an inspired gathering of nonprofits and government folks united in the goal to build stronger, vibrant neighborhoods. The philosophy of the day was logical and simple: When people in a neighborhood have the resources and support to thrive, they will wind up becoming self-sufficient, happy and productive, and the neighborhood itself will go on to thrive further. Ensuring stable and supportive places for people to live is one of the most critical social tenets of triple bottom line principles that builds a foundation for everything else that matters when it comes to sustainability.  More than 200 folks from across North America were inclined to agree as we discussed the concept of the place-based initiative.

What is a PBI?

Simply put, a 'place-based initiative' is a philanthropic program that centers on a specific geographic area with a specific local goal. The goal can range from building homes, to ensuring broadband Internet access, to providing solid educational opportunities to children.  Commonly, a place-based initiative is funded with the help of corporate or government grants, then managed by a nonprofit or a partnership between a corporation, nonprofits and other groups.  A PBI will usually begin with an assessment of community needs undertaken among a variety of stakeholders. For example, one group who presented, called Digital Opportunity for the Rio Grande Valley, is working in colonias -- neighborhoods and towns along the Texas-Mexico border which are mired in poverty and often lack basic infrastructure like sewers, paved roads and, specifically, reliable Internet access. Kids in these neighborhoods often have to head back to their schools at night in order to properly do their homework due to a lack of access at home. The initiative will provide a combination of subsidized Internet access and laptops for kids as a way to bridge the digital divide.

What's in it for a corporation?

The most interesting part of the day, however, was talking to Sanjiv Yajnik, Capital One's president of financial services. Yajnik, born in Calcutta in the era of Mother Teresa, has made place-based philanthropy a personal passion for himself as well as a priority for Capital One. Yajnik told me that while growing up in Calcutta, and subsequently working around the world, he noticed a few things about neighborhoods.  In communities where people were looking out for each other, where real interaction was taking place all the time, a certain vibrancy would be present that allowed that community function and thrive and would make that community a desirable place to be. On the other hand, closed-door communities were not vibrant, not places you'd really want to bring up a family, and the kind of places that might spiral into decline. Vibrant communities produce vibrant businesses and vice versa. Without one or the other, real prosperity can't happen and, therefore, business has two main responsibilities, according to Yajnik: One is to be massively successful in and of itself ... just being successful creates vibrancy. But business also needs to be connected to the community, and sometimes that means lending a helping hand where situations have become so dire that people cannot escape their spiral otherwise. If it's done right, it's not just charity; it's a path to self-sufficiency which can turn a downward spiral into an upward trajectory. So, according to Yajnik, a PBI is a sort of "limited-time strategy" where Capital One might come in as a partner to an area specified by the public sector as having a specific unmet need.  Examples could be anything from education, support for schools and teachers, business plan assistance for entrepreneurs, financial literacy, and the physical revitalization of neighborhood assets. Yajnik sees Capital One’s involvement in individual PBIs as being a three- to four-year commitment of support after which, if all goes well, self-sufficiency results. I asked Yajnik whether or not PBIs and other neighborhood programs should be seen as traditional philanthropy or as an investment of sorts.  After all, at some point more stable neighborhoods mean new customers for the bank. Yajnik was matter of fact about his answer, saying simply:
"A certain amount of philanthropy is required to move a place out of a downward spiral.  That's just the way it is: You give the money; it doesn't come directly back ... ultimately, this is not about getting back a financial return.  I don't have any calculation for anything coming back to Capital One -- at the end of the day, my question is: What is our responsibility as a company?"

And the measurement of success?

With a strict financial measurement out of the way, Yajnik's measure of success becomes more subjective but ultimately more meaningful. It's a very important question without a precise answer. "You can measure some things: Did the graduation rate go up? Did test scores go up? ... But this is complicated, and the answer is ultimately something that comes from the community.  The community will make the decision to say, 'Yes, we're self-sufficient now, and you're no longer required.'" As an illustration, Yajnik is especially proud of Capital One's work in the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans, which won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Corporate Citizenship award in 2014; the company helped provide affordable housing and financial education, as well as economic strength and opportunity for residents. Disclosure: Travel to Dallas was covered by Capital One
Nick Aster

Nick Aster is the founder of TriplePundit. <br /><br />

TriplePundit.com has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place. It was acquired in 2017 by 3BLMedia, the leading news distribution and content marketing company focused on niche topics including sustainability, health, energy, education, philanthropy, community and other social and environmental topics.
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Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He also worked for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.<br /><br />

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

Read more stories by Nick Aster