A thriving community is good for business

    Northwestern Mutual has been a member of the greater Milwaukee area for more than 150 years. Over that time we’ve learned that a strong, vibrant community is good for business. It provides a larger talent pool from which to hire; has more local companies where we can procure resources; and creates a pleasant environment where our employees can live, work and raise families.

    Yes, Milwaukee has much to offer to its residents, but step away from the lakefront, the arts and culture, the great sports teams, the downtown business area, and you’ll encounter another side of our community – people living in poverty.

    The latest census data from the 2008 American Community Survey showed that almost a quarter of all Milwaukeeans are living in poverty, which is defined as a family of four having a household income of $22,500 or less. Nearly one in three children in our city is living in poverty. Milwaukee’s poverty rate is 11th-highest among U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or more.

    Poverty is an enormously complex issue with many underlying causes. But we can all do something to help confront it. Whether small or large, Milwaukee area businesses are a major part of our city’s livelihood, and should be part of the solution to reduce poverty.

    The good news is that the business community doesn’t have to work alone. Nonprofits providing an array of services have the expertise and skills sets to address poverty at the grassroots level. Combine their efforts with the business community’s resources and intellectual capital, and we can make a substantial, sustainable impact.

    For decades, Northwestern Mutual has supported nonprofits that help enhance the economic landscape of and serve those less fortunate in our hometown. We are proud to have a 100-year partnership with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. This year we’ve increased our contributions to Breaking the Cycle of Poverty up to $1.1 million. This United Way initiative provides funding to those nonprofits that help individuals and families lift themselves out of the perils of poverty. These programs include early childhood education, job training and retention, financial stability and teen pregnancy prevention, just to name a few.

    Some of you in the business community are in a position to make significant donations, while others may not at this time due to the tolls of the recession. But there are other ways to be part of the solution. Encourage your employees to volunteer. Run a workplace fundraising campaign. Organize a food drive at work. Adopt a nonprofit that is in need of the services, products and/or an expertise that you and your employees can provide. Collectively, for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations can move our community into the right direction.

    At Northwestern Mutual, we’ve learned that being involved not only has a positive impact on Milwaukee, but also on our employees and the company itself. Through volunteering, our employees have developed leadership and teamwork skills, and a heightened sense of pride for the work they do. For example, each year more than 200 employees volunteer to help lead the corporate United Way campaign, in addition to their day-to-day duties. For these employees, it offers an opportunity to use their talents and creativity in new ways, while building relationships with employees across the company. These are all important components to having an engaged workforce.

    Numerous academic studies support this point. For example, a 2008 article in American Chronicle found that 81 percent of consumers are more likely to buy a product or service that is associated with a cause they care about. In addition, a 2007 Volunteer IMPACT survey by Deloitte and Touche USA revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents would prefer to work for companies that offer opportunities to contribute their talents to nonprofits.

    It is a simple fact: When you support your community, you are supporting your business as well. To donate, start a workplace campaign or to learn more about how you can help, go to www.unitedwaymilwaukee.org

    Deanna Tillisch is vice president of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation.

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