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Purpose At Work: How Liberty Mutual Ensures Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors Get Support
July 19, 2021
Liberty Mutual Insurance operates in 29 countries and economies today. But it didn’t begin as the household name it eventually became. With roots in Boston, it opened its doors just before WWI to provide worker’s compensation insurance. It offered its first automobile insurance policy more than a century ago—when there were only about five million passenger cars in the US (27 years after the first recorded auto accident in Ohio City, Ohio!)
As the company grew, it pioneered safety innovations in the home, at the workplace, and on the highway, and even helped develop the first prosthetic limb to use electronic signals from the brain. The company grew internationally, opening its first office outside North America in 1973, as well as domestically, through acquisitions like Seattle-based P&C carrier Safeco Corporation in 2008. Customer-forward innovations remain strong today, with dedicated idea incubators like its Solaria Labs division, launched in 2016.
The sixth largest property and casualty insurer globally, Fortune ranks it number 71 based on its 2020 revenue of $44B (its profits are around $758 million).
Crucial to the company’s ESG, CSR, and philanthropy efforts is Melissa MacDonnell, President, Liberty Mutual Foundation & VP, Liberty Mutual Insurance. She’s a Lead With We forerunner.
Underwriting people’s full potential
MacDonnell uses Liberty’s foundational principles – its core “identity” – as a touchstone when considering, creating, adopting, or activating any endeavor in the purpose, community service, and giving spaces:
- Progress happens when people feel secure
- Help people embrace today and confidently pursue tomorrow
- Promise protection for the unexpected, delivered with care
To that end, Liberty started its foundation in 2003, to bolster individual and communal “security” in the communities in which its 45K+ people live and work worldwide. In partnership with its grantees, the foundation’s common purpose is to invest the expertise, leadership, and financial strength of the company and its crew “to improve the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors,” says MacDonnell.
The company itself through its Liberty Torchbearers program – thousands of Liberty Mutual employees who participate each year in its Give with Liberty, Volunteer with Liberty, and Serve with Liberty initiatives – demonstrate their passions, their purpose, and their empowerment in 23 countries. With majority participation, the company, which matches employee donations, gives millions, and logs thousands of hours of volunteer time each year.
But the foundation extends that service with a budget last year of $40 million, “offering a very structured and inclusive approach so that all of our NGOs have equal access to information and resources that align with our priorities, which are: advancing access for people with disabilities; empowering individuals – especially youth and young adults – experiencing homelessness; and expanding educational opportunities for underserved students.” MacDonnell says, “all that aligns” with its parent, Liberty Mutual Insurance’s, core values, “because we’ve focused on our most vulnerable neighbors” today, “so they can look forward to a brighter future” tomorrow.
In terms of the unexpected – the essence of the notion of insurance – people are not secure today nor tomorrow unless they’re relatively protected against inevitable catastrophe.
“I know this is going to sound a lot like an insurance professional’s point of view here,” says MacDonnell, but “everything we did before the pandemic set us up extremely well for the crisis of COVID when it came.”
Liberty was ready during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when accessibility, homelessness, and education all became real problems for many in most of the communities Liberty serves, for the company and the foundation to act as first responders, deploying emergency grants and flexible use funds for its nonprofit partners. This was particularly necessary for people who were experiencing significant vulnerabilities. “There is this intense isolation and struggle to begin with,” says MacDonnell, “and the pandemic only exacerbated that.”
MacDonnell led Torchbearers Calling, a program of employees calling people they didn't regularly speak with who were shut-in and isolated owing to COVID, and another of employees decorating thousands of bags with gifts and supplies for children entering foster care during that difficult time.
The foundation removed restrictions on the $14.4 million out in program grants in 2020, “so organizations could use them as they needed.” And it committed a further $15 million in crisis grants to community partners helping to respond to the coronavirus.
Access, as a policy
Liberty Mutual Insurance and its foundation have identified a few real and significant problems in the real world that their constituents are passionate about, and uniquely qualified to address. And, at least from a corporate standpoint, they’re out there with few others working on solutions. “Certainly, accessibility is much more broadly defined for us today,” says MacDonnell, and “there are not a lot of companies in that space.” Accessibility is not necessarily a core value for most companies, although many, such as Ernst & Young, KPMG, and Aetna, all excel in the space.
Our focus on “accessibility, to a large extent,” says MacDonnell, “is somewhat of a nod to our heritage starting as a worker’s comp company, and helping people to live as fulfilling lives as possible.”
For example, the foundation has built “universally-accessible” playgrounds in multiple cities. “It’s not a playground just for kids with disabilities, and it’s not a playground just for kids without disabilities,” MacDonnell says, “This is so that children of all abilities can play together right from the get-go.”
Access dovetails with the availability of safe housing. Regarding businesses combating homelessness, MacDonnell points out, “there are also not many others there.” She thinks that focusing on those three interconnected priorities “gives us the opportunity as a company to really make an even more pronounced difference … and allows us to really be leaders … on some more hidden issues … being a leader is about being places where others may … not be, and saying ‘This is an issue that really matters.’”
Change agents at heart
At the heart of MacDonnell’s philosophy and programming is a psycho-social framework leaders at Liberty use, called “Theory of Change.” Simplified, it’s not so much an abstract “theory” per se as a practical prescription for how to bridge the “missing middle” between the goals of a given initiative, and the all-important impact that proves it’s been a success (achieved its intended outcomes). That’s a lot harder and more complex than it sounds.
Your business, even if it’s a paragon of purpose and service, nevertheless must prosper to stay in business so that it can continue to do well in a virtuous loop. But it’s not all about the bottom line. Liberty understands, according to MacDonnell, that real “ROI is associated with the long-term outcomes for the community … that our health is intricately connected to the health of the community at a high level.”
Those generalized “health outcomes” must be meaningful and measurable, and the results transparent. “If we say we want to be a part of reducing the achievement gap in education, then that's what we ultimately get measured on. When we’re together as a board, we’re looking at [whether we’re] reducing homelessness. Or asking, are we creating more opportunities for people with disabilities to get access to cultural and recreational activities, and workforce opportunities? What do those numbers look like? That is what we are held accountable for,” says MacDonnell.
Getting to that point where the momentum of your ESG and other purpose-driven efforts becomes self-sustaining because the impact is so clear begins with listening, MacDonnell says—listening widely and well. Include as many stakeholders as possible. Really identifying the challenge in front of you, and studying it.
For example, she recounts, “When we look at and address youth and young adult homelessness, we do it by partnering on national efforts, by conducting research [with experts], by being at the table with city leaders. And then we have a portfolio of youth homelessness groups that we convene every quarter.” On this issue, the foundation then employs a “five-part approach: early identification; education and workforce development, specifically for youth who are experiencing homelessness; health and well-being; permanent connections; and having a caring adult in their lives.”
Looking at the pillars of that one program together is critical in grasping the interrelatedness of most challenges. Which gets even more thorny in the field. For example, MacDonnell points out, “We know there’s a very high population of Black and brown children and youth who end up homeless. We know that nearly 40 percent of youths who are homeless are LGBTQ … And then, if a young person has a disability, the challenges just skyrocket.” Such problems are interwoven in a way that compounds disadvantages and complicates any potential change.
In short, “It’s about listening, and it’s about being present,” MacDonnell reminds us. You might need “years and years of listening and being in the community.” Then you need to partner, starting with your own people, in the culture your company has striven to cultivate. Then collaborate with experts, “community partners on the ground, city and state leaders, funders and clients.”
You need to, as Liberty does, Lead With We: Says MacDonnell, “Our voice, our passion, our talent, our resources, the collaboration that’s existing today is better than it has ever been. Bringing partners together, being at the table, and not having these siloed results, but looking at collective impact will continue to be key. The level of engagement and care that we see and we know exists, especially if you look at our employees, is profound.”