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Doing well by doing good

By Gail Johnson | January 23, 2012

Gordon Petersen remembers what happened once Urban Systems, the multidisciplinary consulting company specializing in civil engineering, urban planning, and landscape architecture that he helped found 36 years ago, grew to become a well-established firm with more than 300 employees in Western Canada. It began receiving requests from all sorts of worthy charitable organizations for donations and financial support.

With a team that believed firmly in giving back to the community, the company was keen on helping wherever it could. But it wanted its giving to be both strategic and hands-on, says Petersen, a community planner and former CEO of Urban Systems who’s now semi-retired. It found a way to allow its staff members to help disadvantaged children and youth at home and abroad.

Urban Systems wanted to be more than a “cheque-writing organization” and enable employees to actively participate in corporate-citizenship initiatives. “We talk a lot about generosity in our company and wanted a tangible way to show generosity,” Petersen says. “We wanted our staff to be involved in that.”

The strategy: The 1999 formation of the Urban Systems Foundation, which enables the firm’s employees to contribute to local and global communities and provides a focus for the company’s charitable giving. The foundation has two key programs, the Backyard Project and The International Initiative.

With the Backyard Project, teams in each of the seven offices in B.C. and Alberta annually identify one or several worthy agencies that provide services for children and youth in their community. Working in collaboration with groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, employees give back by volunteering, fundraising, mentoring, and taking part in other activities.

The International Initiative, meanwhile, connects Urban Systems employees with partner agencies around the world (so far in Africa, Brazil, and Thailand). Most recently, the firm has worked with Africa Community Technical Services to provide potable water and educational resources to impoverished families in Uganda. To do that, staff members have held fundraising events, made donations through payroll deduction programs, and travelled overseas to work onsite.

The results: Simple systems have been set up to encourage staff to take ownership of their community-giving plans. “They’re given total responsibility, and it works amazingly well,” Petersen says. “I would estimate that three-quarters of all of our staff are involved in one way or another.”

“When we started the foundation, we were very specific that we were doing this not for business reasons but because it’s the right thing to do,” says Peterson, emphasizing the do-unto-others corporate citizenship of the company showing its appreciation to the community. “The inevitable result is that it is good for business. When people are engaged in acts of generosity, it brings out the very best in them. There’s a sense of pride that our people have, pride of association. It seems to really attract younger people. It’s a growth experience for people.”

The future: Inspired in part by Harvard Business School competitive-strategy expert Michael Porter, the firm is focusing on creating shared value, a concept rooted in the role business plays in expanding overall economic and social value in communities. One way Urban Systems will achieve that is by putting more emphasis on its involvement with First Nations communities, including offering co-op work term placements for youth in collaboration with Aboriginal organizations.

“Creating shared value is a very compelling notion that resonates with our company and our foundation,” Petersen says. “It gives some of the younger First Nations people who may have an interest in our fields a chance to work in our offices and also creates value to the company because they might end up being an employee one day. It builds good will with clients and community.”

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