Getting Started: ARAMARK Building Community

May 26, 2009

1st post in a series on our journey to create ARAMARK Building Community, the company’s signature community initiative to strength the capacity of the country’s local community centers.

Bev_Dribin_headshot_Aramark For over 75 years, community involvement activities at ARAMARK were initiated largely at the grassroots level by service-minded employees who wanted to get involved and support their communities. While ARAMARK is a global company, it is deeply embedded into the communities in which it operates. Community involvement efforts were left to local managers to develop and implement.

Without specific direction or infrastructure support around community involvement, activities revolved around suggestions from clients or passionate employees who encouraged support of organizations important to them. With each region and business having its own small, individual community relations projects, over time ARAMARK came to support a myriad of different philanthropic and employee volunteerism activities, touching every type of cause and issue.

This meant there was little awareness of the extent of the community support being committed by ARAMARK overall; and there were missed opportunities to leverage employees’ skills and knowledge, and to build relationships with clients, prospects, and local leaders.

In 2006, a small group of executives was assembled from various disciplines within the company to consider how our business units could become more collaborative and leverage key aspects of the company to grow their business. One of the team’s early focuses was on developing a company-wide community involvement strategy that would help connect, engage, and integrate the company’s 260,000 employees.  Rick Martella, Vice President of Corporate Affairs was charged by Andrew Kerin President of ARAMARK’s North America Food, Hospitality and Facility Services, to head up the team. They brought me in as Vice President of Community Relations to help lead the strategic plan development process.

We began by looking both internally and externally for models, examples, and lessons. We brought in an outside, independent research firm to help us better understand the perceptions and realities of our current work.  Through five regional meetings in key cities across the country, the team met with employees, clients, non-profits and community leaders to learn about their knowledge and perceptions of ARAMARK, and their community goals and needs.

Meeting with business leaders inside and outside of the company was an important step in gaining input on what would work, what would not work and how the program could best provide value.  Having served in the company for almost twenty years, Rick helped us steer our networking strategies. “We understood that any initiative would need to be presented in the context of ‘added business value,’” said Martella.  “We knew that the ultimate strategy needed to solve for business needs in order for it to see the light of day.”

We also sought information on best practices drawn from companies with successful community involvement and employee engagement programs.  As members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center and the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, we reviewed their archives and research studies, and attended conferences and classes, to learn from those who had already successfully developed CSR platforms and related programs. We met with senior executives of companies like Starbucks, Verizon, Timberland, Comcast, State Street, and Reebok to learn about best practices and execution challenges. 

One of the trends ARAMARK studied was the evolution of “signature” community programs.  These branded initiatives served as an umbrella for a variety of activities and tactics but, most importantly, also linked back to the brand or mission of the company.  Companies with signature programs were able to effectively rally their employees and customers because they were able to clearly and consistently articulate their brands’ commitment to their causes and partners.  Signature programs also allowed executives throughout the organizations to stay focused and re-direct other, less strategic philanthropic requests and dramatically re-shape their local commitments for greater impact.

We decided to explore the development of a unique signature program that ARAMARK could own.  Realizing that we were at a stage where they needed help from someone with complementary expertise, we brought in Cause Consulting, a Boston-based firm specializing in creating corporate social responsibility strategies and signature programs.  We knew our business inside-out, but there comes a point when you need to bring in a fresh perspective. Cause Consulting helped us expedite the process.  They provided outside perspective to help us see the big picture.

>> Next post in series, Developing a Signature Program

Bev Dribin is Vice President for Community Relations at ARAMARK.