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Business Officer Magazine

A CBO’s Role in Community Initiatives

By Darrell Bazzell

Like many public institutions, the University of Texas at Austin sees its mission as having three key components: teaching and learning, research, and public service. As we engage the community, we often find intersections between those components.  At UT Austin, for example, most of our colleges and schools have community service components, and 29 different departments offer academic service-learning courses.

Through its Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and its School of Social Work, the university is currently involved in two large urban revitalization initiatives within Austin. For the Colony Park Sustainable Community Initiative, a three-year project supported by a federal grant, a research team from the university met with residents in the city's northeast side to generate a plan for 208 acres of publicly owned land. Working with four other partners, including Austin Community College, the university helped develop a master plan for the area, which is attracting the interest of new businesses.

Similarly, the Restore Rundberg initiative teams UT Austin with other community stakeholders-including law enforcement, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations—to improve life, health, and safety in a six-mile area that accounts for a disproportionate share of the city's violent crimes and property thefts. A faculty-led research team identified various approaches to making sustainable improvements; following implementation, violent crime in the area dropped by more than 4 percent, with a 14 percent decrease in property crime.    

Students are involved as well. Early this year, more than 1,400 of them headed to the Rundberg neighborhood for a day of beautification projects, such as cultivating gardens, painting bridges and fences, and cleaning up the streets. Cumulatively, their 8,900 hours of volunteer service on that day alone translated into an economic impact of nearly $90,000.            

So how does the chief business officer fit into such community engagement efforts? When involved in identifying opportunities as well as planning and implementing initiatives, chief business officers bring that all-important management perspective to the table. We ask questions that focus on having not only a sound financial plan to support an idea but also clarifying: (1) the overall strategy and goals, (2) organizational structures, (3) ways people would be hired for various roles, (4) what space might be needed, (5) how goals will be measured, and (6) how and when progress will be assessed. Oftentimes other people don't think in those terms, so we have to make the case for being well-organized, having systems and processes in place, and monitoring expenditures as well as results. Besides asking those questions, we need to offer assistance to help others move forward in a way that is more sound and sustainable. So part of our job is actually showing how these business issues can be addressed practically and in ways that are not overly burdensome to the institution. That said, once the institution has identified the community initiatives it will work on collaboratively, the chief business officer puts on a different hat. Then the job is to ensure that the institution can provide the resources necessary to support its endeavors—and finding those resources may take a bit of creativity.            

I'm a big believer in CBOs being personally involved in public service—not just in their institutional role but also outside of daily work. If you really believe that community engagement is important, then it's critical to lend your personal time and expertise to community-based organizations—to lead by example. That's why I've been a Big Brother for 18 years. And in my 13 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I previously served as vice chancellor for finance and administration, I chaired the boards of the Boys and Girls Club, the Urban League of Greater Madison, 100 Black Men, and one of the state's large conservation organizations.            

It's very rewarding to be involved at the grassroots level and to see a difference being made locally. Beyond being sound financial managers, business officers can contribute so much to their institutions and their communities. We can actually do things that make a difference in people's lives.    

Darrell Bazzell is senior vice president and chief financial officer at University of Texas at Austin.

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