Leader to Leader: Can CSR Move the Needle
on Poverty?

Sept. 8, 2022

David Griffith, who has deep experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, says the answer is an emphatic yes.

Dave Griffith has done many things in his life. Carved out an extraordinary business career (he spent nearly 20 years as CEO of the Modern Group). Served on a variety of nonprofit boards (he’s currently chair of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University). Written his own blog (called Muddy Boots). And for nearly a decade he’s served as executive director and head coach of Episcopal Community Services, where he’s the first non-clergy member and non-social worker to run the church-sponsored nonprofit in its 152 -year history.

Here, the Satell Institute member opens up about why he believes free enterprise is crucial to moving people out of poverty and why it’s in everyone’s interest—including that of companies—to do so.


I loved being in business because…

…there wasn’t a job I didn’t love, because at every job I was learning something. It was interesting to have multiple careers. I thought when I joined IBM I’d be there for life, and I’m grateful for the experience. But it set me up for the next job, which set me up for the next job, which set me up for the next job. When I teach leadership, I have a theory that you shouldn’t really be in any job more than 10 years, particularly if you’re running something.

My lifetime formula for running an organization is…

…the better the talent, the better the outcomes and the better the rewards. And so I’ve always been a hawk on talent and recruiting people who were both necessary to the business and complimented my skills. My ambition: if I do my job right, I’m the dumbest guy when I leave. If you hire talent and you share the wealth and you share the decision-making, things have a way of working out.

My current job is…

…by  far the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. It’s fundamental that you’ve got to give back. This is why the Satell Institute is so interesting. It’s just fundamental. And I’ll tell you, my job has been a wake-up call on the issue of poverty. I’m fortunate. I get to be involved with the Academy of Natural Sciences on the environment, which is a huge issue, and at ECS I get to work on the issue of poverty. It’s tremendously rewarding. And it’s tremendously frustrating. Frustrating as we have the leaders to move the needle on poverty if public and private interests can work together in a fact-based manner.


My title at ECS is head coach because….

…we made a fundamental choice to get out of the maintenance-of-poverty business and get into the transformation business. If we’re going to grow as a country, we need to move people out of poverty. Five years ago we as an organization sat down and said, we’re going to roll the dice. Is there a better way to case manage? And we found an agency in Boston called EMPath — Economic Mobility Pathways. It’s based on brain science that says, when you’re in deep crisis, your cognitive function is zero. So if you can lower the sense of crisis, a person can improve their problem-solving. And what they discovered is that by coaching people against small goals and eventually larger goals, it’s the old flywheel effect, it improves cognitive function.

The coaching method is one we embrace throughout the entire agency. And so the idea of being the head coach was logical. And when folks ask the same question, it opens an opportunity to tell our story.

The way out of poverty is…

…a job at a living wage with benefits and assets in the bank.

My executive math on that is…

…if you look at living wage in America, about 30 percent of the population lives below living wage. If you could move that population to being employed at a living wage and move people off the social safety net, you have the potential  to lower tax rates because a fair amount of the GDP goes to the safety net. And you’ve also then created a whole new level of consumers.

If you can create living-wage jobs, with the right training and a conscious decision by corporations to hire, you’re going to have economic growth because you’ll increase demand, which will create jobs, and you start to get a self-funding cycle. Jim Narron at the Fed has done fundamental research on this, but it fits exactly with what Ed Satell’s talking about. In the business community, it’s in our enlightened self-interest to deal with poverty.

Workforce development is crucial because…

…if people are working, that’s not a handout. And I never met anybody in poverty that didn’t want to work. They’re among the most resilient people I know. I have business colleagues who think the poor are unemployed. That’s just not true. People are working, probably two or three jobs.

The issue is a living wage, the issue of skills, the issue of race, the issue of gender – it’s all wrapped up. It’s really uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s necessary to deal with it. It’s not a red or blue issue.

When it comes to fighting poverty, corporations…

…have a few levers they can pull. They can to commit to an ecosystem where people can get the right training, and then commit to hiring that population in an intentional way. Second, you can be committed to your vendor and supplier management, so that if you can’t do the hiring, you have a supplier diversity plan that supports job creation around that ecosystem. Third, that you commit to a living wage is kind of a given.

When I talk to other business leaders about this…

…we’re getting a lot of traction. There is a huge disconnect between the trades and traditional education. One of the things business, and we as a society, can do is recognize that the trades are as valuable as a liberal arts education. I’m a trustee at Drexel. The co-op program ought to be everywhere as another targeted approach. Real-life skills are important. Now let’s include everybody in that. It’s not socialism, guys. We need workers. We’ve got to think long-term. With a lot of businesses, it’s more about me than it is about us. Let’s use business to create jobs. It needs to be about all of us.

When the Satell Institute launched…

…it frankly wasn’t on my radar. But I caught up with Tony Conti for lunch one day, and he said, “Dave, you’ve got to join Satell.” He told me about it, and it was a no-brainer.

The biggest benefit of SI is…

Having like-minded people focused on Corporate Social Responsibility is incredibly important. It’s a tremendous opportunity to engage and drive informed change. It’s a rising tide for all boats.


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