BCLC: Past and Present

While BCLC was incorporated ten years ago, its spiritual founding happened the year before at a conference called “Corporate Citizenship and Globalization.”

If you think corporate citizenship is hard to explain now, it was even more difficult then.  When I walked out in the bright sunshine to meet our morning keynote, Ted Turner, he greeted me with, “What am I here to talk about again?”

We had invited him because a few months earlier, he had caused a sensation by making a billion dollar gift to the United Nations.  Why would he do such a thing?  What was the logic behind it?

As we dug deeper, we began to discover some very interesting facts.  Companies spent ten times more on community relations than they did on government relations.  The number of non-profits had quadrupled since 1980, and they controlled a trillion dollars worth of assets in the United States. 

We also found that companies were increasingly exploring ways to take direct action through partnership, philanthropy, employee engagement, and other vehicles to solve issues such as education, wellness, and community development that had historically not been considered part of their cost of doing business.  Ted Turner, it turned out, was just the most visible early example of a surging trend, and the first to really expand it to the global development stage.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the vanguard of a movement that has grown dramatically over the past ten years. 

At that time, only the German and U.S. development agencies were in the process of opening up partnership offices.  Now all of the major development agencies are doing so.  

A third of all international American Chambers have some kind of corporate citizenship committee.  We have worked with over 300 state and local chambers in the U.S.  We are building relationships with mayors and United Ways, community volunteer centers and regional coalitions.  Partnerships for development have become mainstream because of the growing realization that no single organization has all of the answers, but working together, we can leverage resources and expand our reach.

If I knew then what I know now, I might have been daunted by the challenges we took on beginning ten years ago, but I was inspired by another person who spoke at that 1999 conference.

The Reverend Leon Sullivan became famous in the 1980s for articulating the Sullivan Principles for corporate engagement in South Africa.  This original code of conduct spawned thousands of imitators, but even in 1999 it was controversial to have the Reverend Sullivan speak at the Chamber.  There was no argument however about him doing so, because he was on the board of directors of General Motors, and Judith Mullins, GM’s public policy director arranged it.

To tell you the truth, I don’t really remember what the Reverend Sullivan said.  What I remember with startling clarity is what he did. 

The minute he walked in the door of the Chamber, he stopped at the front desk to greet the receptionist and the security guard.  Almost without missing a beat, he said, “I remember you.  You worked with me back in Philadelphia in the 1960s!”

The guard was visibly, emotionally overcome. 

I couldn’t believe the Reverend Sullivan’s memory or his focus.  We had assembled business, government and nonprofit leaders, an important audience for him, but he still had eyes to see and recognize the humblest man in the room.

I loved that 360 degree vision and that memory.  I wish I had both of those gifts. 

Over the years however, I do think that BCLC has helped to raise awareness that while no single business has all of the answers, the business community as a whole, is growing increasingly conscious of, and determined to help as many of its stakeholders as it can. 

Today, BCLC is all about businesses and their partners working together to make a difference.  Companies are doing things for Haiti and for Cleveland.  They are investing in education and wellness.  They are pushing the limits of R&D, investing in culture, arts, and heritage preservation, urban entrepreneurship, and financial literacy.  They invest in home ownership and promote diversity and workforce development.   The breadth and depth of their engagement is amazing, and BCLC has been honored to play a small role in helping to make some of these things happen and to be able to recognize and share best practices across our networks. 

As my good friend Chester Terry likes to say, “we’ve gotten some [stuff] done.”