Michael J. Brennan

President and Chief Executive Officer
United Way for Southeastern Michigan

The partnership between United Way and Ford dates back more than 60 years. Even in its early days, the company understood that it was essential for a successful corporation to address the most pressing human needs within society. Ford has a long history of mirroring its belief system with actions.

When you look at Ford Motor Company today, you see a company with community-focused commitments that are embedded within the corporate DNA. The automaker believes that thriving, viable communities are critical not only to the company itself, but also to those who live and work within its areas of operation.

Sadly for our community, Detroit can be seen as the “ground zero” of the nation’s economic crisis. The devastation to this city is equivalent to that of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina – only without the floods. In 2010, our United Way “help line” took in 400,000 calls from southeastern Michigan (up from 300,000 in 2008) – with hunger the top reason for assistance.

Many of those calls for food relief were coming from areas that never before needed help, which meant social service organizations didn’t have the infrastructure to support so many in need. Ford worked with us to develop a mobile strategy, through which we could take food directly to individuals using a fleet of Transit Connect vans donated by Ford for this purpose. These vans are able to bring food to historically middle-class communities where food pantries simply don’t exist.

Despite Ford’s own financial troubles in recent years, the company continued to stand behind its communities. The approach has been focused and strategic, because the company has had to do more with less. When Ford had to re-focus its charitable dollar contributions to maximize community impacts, it harnessed the energy of its employees for volunteer projects. The company found creative ways to use its people and its products to address urgent social issues.

The most important thing a company can do for its communities is to be successful as a private enterprise. After all, there’s nothing more power than a viable, sustainable and meaningful job.

I’ve been doing this kind of work for 25 years, and the companies that weather the most difficult times are those that have a deep understanding of the interdependence between a successful company and a successful community. Companies that encourage their employees to be engaged within their communities are far likelier to do well. Indeed, employees want to work for organizations that allow them to find meaning in their lives.

I could give a company a detailed checklist of the things they and their employees can do for their communities. But unless a company has a deep and abiding commitment from corporate leaders, execution of the checklist will be a thankless task. The big differentiator for Ford is that they understand the importance of community work, and they attach the leadership and the resources to it so it can reach its full expression.