People + Strategy Journal

Spring 2021

Powering Social Impact as the Chief of Corporate Social Responsibility

Taking a thoughtful and proactive stance on social justice issues increases revenue, loyalty and engagement. Following a five-step process of engagement fuels deeper change for all stakeholders.

By Julie Currie, Amplitude

2020 was a year of unprecedented human and humanitarian challenges, which, while difficult, have also provided a catalyst for philanthropy and social good. Companies globally have played a vital role in providing financial and other support to their people and the communities in which they operate. 

This unique shared experience created new momentum and opportunity for many companies, but also a growing expectation from a broad set of stakeholders. Employees, communities, customers, shareholders and supply chain partners increasingly assume that their companies will engage in crises and complex global issues. 

But this is difficult terrain, and even as the majority of business leaders today acknowledge a role for business in addressing societal issues, the challenges of “how” remain. According to the 2020 Porter Novelli Executive Purpose study, key challenges include: 
  • Stakeholders wanting different things (43 percent).
  • Lack of internal alignment/action on issues (28 percent).
  • Fear of retaliation from different stakeholder groups (27 percent).
  • Risk-averse boards and key decision-makers (25 percent).
  • Not enough money or resources to make an impact on these issues (15 percent).
  • Not knowing where to start in addressing the myriad pressing issues (14 percent).
Given this complexity, the question is, who exactly leads this effort, and how? This article examines the opportunity for HR to be a true agent of change and provides a framework of five core areas to consider when leading a social justice strategy. 

Why Risk Engaging?

Stakeholders are looking for companies to make a difference and to accelerate the pace of change. Once companies started to act in 2020, we witnessed a pinwheel effect, with each action spurring further actions. Companies large and small changed their policies, taking stances and engaging employees in new ways. 

According to the study referenced above, 73 percent of executives agree that companies must take a stand on issues despite potential negative consequences. Aside from the moral benefit—which matters at the human level but goes against the grain of the Milton Friedman approach to business that has dominated the U.S. landscape for the past four decades—why did these companies risk treading such unfamiliar ground? 

Companies found many business benefits to taking a more proactive stance on social justice issues:

Attracting and retaining talent and employment brand. Purpose plays a key role in attracting employees, who are increasingly researching companies and scrutinizing what they stand for and the actions they take on social justice issues. In December 2020, Benevity explained the link between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and talent as 82 percent of millennials consider CSR efforts when deciding where to work, and 70 percent are willing to take up to a 30 percent pay cut to work for a company with strong social values and a brand that represents those values.

Increased revenue. Purpose-driven business has been on an upswing for the past few years—and the redefinition of the “purpose of a corporation” by the Business Roundtable in 2019 seemed to solidify the notion that business solely for profit was largely a thing of the past. The Executive Purpose study supports this trend: The majority (85 percent) of business leaders surveyed agree it is no longer acceptable for companies to myopically pursue profit; they must positively impact society, as well.

In addition to delivering profitable shareholder returns, the best-run companies look to deliver long-term value to a broader set of stakeholders. Companies that take a stance on social justice issues establish a competitive edge including increased revenues, customer loyalty and employee engagement. 

The shoe company TOMS is a great example of social entrepreneurship. Its now-famous business model was unorthodox at its inception just over 10 years ago: For every pair of shoes a customer bought, TOMS would donate a pair to a child in need. CEO Blake Mycoskie said the average retail price for a pair of TOMS is $55, while the canvas shoes cost about $9 each to manufacture. According to BCG research, 50 percent of their customers are aware of and motivated to buy based on the element of social good. 

How to Engage Effectively

Consider this framework when leading your social justice strategy. 
  1. Take a stance: Align social justice messaging to companies’ mission, values and culture.
  2. Define the role of the CEO and the leadership team.
  3. Engage and unleash your employees.
  4. Deliver communications that inform, inspire and engage your audience. 
  5. Evaluate progress and impact.
1. Take a Stance.
The first step is to take a social justice stance that is a reflection of your corporate values and culture and that is connected to your business. An example is the decision by some companies not to pursue business in China after revelations about products being made in Uyghur internment camps in the Xinjiang region. In these camps, more than one million Uyghurs, a Muslim minority group in Xinjian, China, are subjected to arbitrary detention, abuse and forced labor. As awareness of this problem grew globally, many name-brand technology companies began to realize that their facial recognition technology or related products were potentially being used to support Uyghur round-ups and detention. Surveillance equipment suppliers like Hikvision or supercomputing from Intel and Nvidia suddenly found themselves in the midst of a human rights discussion. (Both Intel and Nvidia have since declared that they “do not support or tolerate their products being used to violate human rights.”) 

Apple, Nike and Coca-Cola and other companies began lobbying Congress for legislation that would ban goods made with forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. 

Some U.S. technology companies have weighed the risks of doing business in China and decided to halt aspects of their business there. Google, for example, withdrew from China in the face of extensive government interference with free expression. Microsoft has been an industry leader in crafting safeguards relating to facial recognition. 

2. Articulate the Role of the CEO and Leadership Team.
The business case for CEOs taking a stand on social issues is growing, even for issues that don’t appear to impact operations. 

Apple announced a set of new projects as part of its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative to help dismantle systemic barriers to opportunity and combat injustices faced by communities of color. It is also setting financial goals for its executive to measure progress on these initiatives. 

Ben & Jerry’s has been committed to social justice since its founding in 1978. It has spoken out on issues from climate justice to refugee rights, often donating a portion of its proceeds to various causes. In 2016, it publicly announced its support for Black Lives Matter. 

When Matthew McCarthy took the helm in 2018, he vowed to double the company’s social impact. In McCarthy’s words, “Business should be held accountable to setting very specific targets, specifically around dismantling white supremacy in and through our organizations… You treasure what you measure. You measure what you treasure.” 

Four steps leaders can take include:
  1. Have open dialogues with your employees; they want to hear from their leaders about how and why their company is taking a stance. 
  2. Establish clear executive action plans for responding to events. 
  3. Create advisory groups with specific, diverse executive sponsorship to creates inclusivity and accelerate actions across the organization. Be clear on the purpose and guardrails of those groups: to create understanding, to drive action, to change policy?
  4. Donate and give back to the communities and support causes externally. 

3. Deliver Communications that Inform, Inspire and Engage.
Once clear on your social justice strategy, inform and engage your audience and provide opportunities for your stakeholders to take action and to be heard. If 2020 taught us anything, it is that these are hard conversations, but they’re better when we have them than when we ignore them.

Given the range of opinions and feelings that people bring to these topics, driving initial alignment is a crucial part of your communication planning. Take the opportunity to educate employees and other stakeholders on the social justice topics you’ve chosen to embrace. Lay out the complexities and the nuances of decisions or actions the company is facing or contemplating—and why the company is going to enter the fray despite those challenges. 

PayPal CEO Dan Shulman has long taken a stance opposing bigotry. In 2016, Schulman opted to scrap plans to open a 400-person operations center in North Carolina, after the state passed an anti-transgender law. In 2020, during the outrage following the killing of George Floyd, PayPal invested $500 million in Black and minority businesses. “You need to do more than just condemn racism, you need to be…anti-racist,” Schulman said in an interview. “And what anti-racist means to us, at least, is that you have to be part of the fight. You need to stand up and be involved.”

4. Engage and Unleash Your Employees. 
By creating a network of ambassadors, companies can better foster employees as advocates and influencers, leading to increased engagement. 

Recently, Benevity, a SaaS company for CSR, employee engagement and social good, named Splunk the winner of the 2020 moonshot award. Splunk was recognized for the boldness and creativity of its approach to corporate purpose in giving and volunteering all over the world.

Here are some examples and innovative ways Splunk engaged employees, had fun and made an impact:
  • Global giving challenge: Splunk flipped a traditional fundraising campaign on its head by putting the dollars into the hands of its employees. The goal was to make the experience of giving easy, fun and feel like a reward in itself. 
  • Meal Madness: The company embraced the fever of basketball season by incorporating a March Madness competition, ultimately packing over 40,000 meals for Rise Against Hunger.
  • Can engineering: Employees all over the world built sculptures made of canned and boxed food. This onsite team-building opportunity brought awareness to local food banks and global commitment to hunger relief. 
  • Habitat for Humanity: Partnering with Habitat for Humanity and affiliates in global locations, Splunk created hands-on volunteer experiences to deepen social connections, bolster culture and support causes in employees’ communities.
Key takeaways for fun, impactful employee engagement:
  • Use gamification to make giving and volunteering fun!
  • Harness positive peer pressure and brand ambassadors to skyrocket engagement.
  • Incorporate drip marketing techniques like internal chat and digital monitor signage to keep goodness top of mind.
5. Evaluate Progress and Impact.
There are many ways to measure the internal impact of your social justice stance. Choose a few key goals or metrics and track them with rigor. For example, you might measure: 
  • Achievement of business goals that were specifically in service of social justice.
  • Systemic changes in your business operations such as shifting revenue sources away from areas with social justice concerns.
  • Engagement and involvement of your employees through your giving, matching and volunteering programs.
  • Community impact.
  • Ability to attract, promote and retain diverse talent.

Our Challenge as HR Leaders

While the issues surrounding the broader role of companies in society is controversial and not every CEO or company is comfortable taking a stance, it is clear that the right mix of leadership, a thoughtful companywide approach and individual commitments to act will be required to address complex issues. 

As leaders of people, we have a powerful opportunity to influence behavior and systemic change. Through messaging with strategic calls-to-action, creative and multichannel outreach, we can impact widespread change in any environment.  

Julie Currie is Chief People Officer at Amplitude and an advisor to start-ups. She can be reached through LinkedIn.