Corporate social responsibility is now common for organizations; it’s become standard to stand for something. Corporate social advocacy (CSA) is the next step up for giving your organization a purpose. It involves supporting issues that are more cutting-edge, and often without an obvious link to the organization’s products or services. For more about the contrast between CSR and CSA, read “What’s the Difference Between CSR and CSA — and Why Should I Care?”
Corporate social advocacy efforts give your organization a personality—a brand(!)—that sets you apart from the competition. But a feel-good save-the-world image is worth more than bragging rights and congratulatory headlines. Here are a few very practical reasons why it’s a good idea for your organization to have a CSA program:
1. You’ll have to pay less for talent.
If you want to hire people these days, your best and brightest prospects are going to expect you to have a diverse culture. One that doesn’t just talk about values but does things to demonstrate those values. If you don’t offer them a culture to be proud of, they’re going to go elsewhere. Or you’ll have to pay more in salary or benefits or both to attract and keep them.
2. Your employees will be less likely to walk out.
71% of employees globally believe it’s critically important for their CEO to respond to global challenges. And 76% of the general population agree that they want CEOs to take the lead on change, instead of waiting for governments to act, according to a recent EY study.
Employees are increasingly expressing their feelings about corporate behavior with walkouts and boycotts. In 2018, 20,000 Google employees walked out to protest sexual harassment in the workplace. Walmart employees walked out en masse last August to protest the company’s sale of guns. In June of 2019 Wayfair employees walked out to protest the company’s sale of furnishings to migrant detention centers. In general these walkouts have been effective in getting companies to modify their policies and at least verbally address employee issues.
Not only will it make employees happier if you take a stand on key issues, it will turn them into advocates. When asked how they would respond if their company and/or CEO made a real effort to meaningfully influence an important societal issue, 59% of respondents said they would be more likely to recommend their company’s products or services. And 53% said they would be more likely to increase their overall level of engagement in their work each day, according to a 2017 study.
3. Your investors expect it.
Today any smart investor, whether institutional or individual, is going to look at a company’s ESG score as it evaluates the risk the company could face from environmental, cultural, legal, or regulatory actions. Without a public plan to address these issues, investors will see your organization as unprepared.
Additionally, divestiture movements around fossil fuel are gaining momentum, and institutions are under pressure to invest in ways that combat climate change. Even more interesting, major lenders are adding to the pressure with dramatic announcements like this one from the European Investment Bank late last year:
- “The EIB Group will aim to support €1 trillion of investments in climate action and environmental sustainability in the critical decade from 2021 to 2030.
- “The EIB Group will gradually increase the share of its financing dedicated to climate action and environmental sustainability to reach 50% of its operations in 2025 and from then on.
- “The EIB Group will align all its financing activities with the principles and goals of the Paris agreement by the end of 2020.”
So-called investor-driven governance networks are also increasingly driving corporate behavior. Researchers Michael MacLeod and Jacob Park argue that:
To the extent these investor-driven networks have been successful in shaping and transforming the discourse surrounding climate change, and in linking global climate change to the core strategic interests of corporations in general and investors specifically,… they have a degree of effectiveness, in both their outputs (i.e., what have they done?) and outcomes (i.e., has there been any changed behavior?) as a governance institution.
4. Your board members are already nervous.
Boards of directors around the world have seen how a negative tweet or YouTube video can destroy a company’s reputation, so they expect CEOs and leadership to pay attention to the mood of employees. They are also hyper aware of what this political climate can evoke. That random employee tweet can quickly be turned into a political weapon to advance one agenda or another, so they need reassurance that you are doing all you can to be on the right side of history.
This might be one reason that 200 CEOs of the Business Roundtable signed a letter redefining the purpose of business in society; it isn’t just to benefit shareholders, but to benefit all stakeholders, including employees, their communities, the environment, and their suppliers.
5. Your legal department may not give you a choice.
The lessons of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby were not lost on your legal department. They understand that a corporation has free speech rights, and they also understand the risks of not engaging.
Tom Lin, in a Boston University Law Review article, argues that:
…because the law has given corporations such great freedom and deference to engage in issues of social, political, and religious significance, it is only natural that advocates for such issues try to leverage the resources and reach of corporate interests. Similarly, corporate actors seeking to effectuate social change understandably try to leverage their own business platforms to aid them in achieving their social ends. Corporate executives with strong personal interests in social causes that they believe align well with the best interests of their companies would be remiss to not reach for the many powerful corporate tools at their disposal.
Lin contends that such freedom offers opportunities for corporations to act as a force multiplier to achieve greater societal good. Lin argues that the societal shift has already occurred, and the best thing corporations can do is to embrace it, cautiously of course. Ultimately he recommends that:
- Corporate boards thoroughly review and refine their internal policies to ascertain whether their company’s internal policies reflect the purpose and identity that they seek to project.
- Executives and entrepreneurs should give serious consideration to their company’s purpose and how they choose to authentically communicate that purpose to better connect with the public and key stakeholders. Specifically, he cautions: “They should do this not as a matter of superficial public relations, but as a matter of establishing a core identity. In particular, they should be able to tell a corporate purpose narrative that goes beyond the amoral pursuit of profit and that authentically articulates their core values and missions. This authentic narrative of firm purpose and identity could prove incredibly powerful in motivating employees to be more productive, customers to be more loyal, and investors to be more patient with the company.”
And that’s a lawyer talking!!!
If you want another great example of doing corporate social advocacy right, read about how Southwest Airlines decides on which issues it will engage.
6. Your customers and advocates will make different choices.
There is a ton of research that proves in a variety of ways that purchase decisions today are impacted by perceptions of a brand’s stand on social issues. At the same time, more and more organizations like Thomson Reuters, PwC, and Dow Jones are issuing reports on the social accomplishments and failures of major corporations. This greater transparency and visibility (never mind whatever political pressure and scrutiny this election year brings) ensures that your customers and potential customers will be more knowledgeable than ever about your corporate behavior and your stands on social issues. And they will be making choices based on that knowledge. ∞
Image thanks to Donnie Ray Jones on Flickr.