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COMMENTARY
It’s not really about ‘giving back’
(Published December 17, 2001)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

I used to manage a retail food store, where I learned pretty quickly that even my best efforts at planning a work day often went awry soon after the doors opened at 9 a.m.

One day, in a moment of frustration and near panic as my harried assistant manager realized he was about to miss yet another ordering deadline after dealing with a difficult customer, Sean threw up his hands (and his clipboard) in theatrical fashion and declared: "We could run this place right if we just got rid of all the customers!"

The incident offered instant comic relief, yet also crystallized one of the really meaningful reasons we worked so hard every day: to provide service to our customers. Without customers, a business cannot survive — and we genuinely liked being a part of our customers’ lives and their community.

Having been in the situation of serving customers for many years — including my current occupation as owner, publisher and editor of The Common Denominator — I cannot understand the thinking of business owners and managers who divorce themselves from the community in which they do business.

And I am repulsed by the concept that business men and women must be coerced into "giving back" to the community from which they derive their means of financial support.

I don’t recall ever even hearing about businesses being asked to "give back" to the community before I moved to D.C. 20 years ago. Yet, I can cite many businesses — large and small — in many communities across this country where the people who own and run them understand they have an obligation to be part of the community.

When I was growing up in northeastern Ohio, residents never had to demand support from the local business community — even when those businesses were large corporations based in other places.

Business owners and managers were expected to be participating members of the community. Even if they lived in another nearby town, they were expected to keep abreast of civic affairs and to work alongside their customers to help make good things happen in the community.

Sometimes residents had to make a simple request, but that often wasn’t even necessary to get the business community’s support. I can recall the manager of one large industrial plant being so involved in the community that he was elected to the local school board, even though his own children were long grown up.

"Giving back" to the community — while an almost necessary demand of many businesses operating in D.C. — is not what it’s really all about.

"Participation" as an integral part of daily life in the community is what should be demanded of D.C. businesses.

And the business men and women who are failing to participate in the community should be ashamed of themselves for allowing the bottom line to obscure how they get to it.

While businesses need their customers’ money to survive, merely making money has got to stop being the only motivation for businesses to locate in the District of Columbia.

When businesses participate in community life, the community’s support in turn becomes part of the businesses’ protection — whether the protection needed is against an economic downturn or a crime wave.

Residents and business people should not find themselves fighting on opposing sides of community issues anywhere near as often as it happens in D.C. They should be part of a mutual support network for the community.

Unfortunately, that’s a long way from becoming the reality in D.C.

Just page through the program from D.C. Public Schools’ recent varsity football championship game, the Turkey Bowl, to see for yourself how little support the city’s business community really offers to D.C.’s kids in a way that could mean so much toward getting young people off the streets, directing their energy toward healthful pursuits and putting simple fun back into learning.

There’s still time to make New Year’s resolutions.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator