Between the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide call for an end to systemic racism in the U.S., the need for awareness and assistance has reached a critical peak.
So rather than simply writing another check or joining a march, many want a more innovative way to make an impact, perhaps one being led by a well-known brand.
With so many companies pitching in to help in so many ways, it’s not always obvious whether an organization is actually demonstrating its values or capitalizing on a moment purely for marketing purposes. Can the layperson tell the difference? If the help is there, does the motivation truly matter?
Emily Kane Miller, whose company Ethos Giving works with corporations, individuals and foundations to make an impact with their philanthropy, considers the distinction important, and she contends she can easily spot the difference.
Miller cites companies such as Netflix and Sweetgreen as organizations that have found meaningful ways to move the needle. Those efforts include a conscious focus on presenting entertainment that highlights Black Lives Matter, and the 100,000-meal goal of the Sweetgreen Impact Outpost Fund.
By contrast, some entities have marketing departments that talk a bigger game than they play, Miller said.
“When people say, ‘Our brand has fixed literacy issues in this zip code’ or ‘Because of us, there is more quality for LGBT people’ and they make these big proclamations when actually they’ve done very little, that is making a mountain out of a molehill,” Miller said. “That is goodwashing.”
“I think it also comes from this sense of being disingenuous, that you are specifically doing this because you know it is important but for whatever reason, you still want the credit. It is the opposite of the kinds of individuals that I like to work with and that I think are making the world a better place for everybody,” Miller said.
Writing for the website Triple Pundit in January, Miller predicted that the 2020s would herald a new time of corporate social responsibility. Half a year later, in the midst of a global pandemic, a crumbling economy and the call for racial justice turning to a roar, Miller says her belief is as strong as ever. She points to the fact that in June, racial justice organizations took in $232 million in contributions — more than they would cumulatively bring in during an entire year previously.
“There is so much cynicism and so much reluctance to believe that this is coming from a place that is thoughtful,” Miller said. “The world needs corporations specifically, but all generous individuals need to show up now more than they have ever shown up before.”
At the start of the pandemic, Kfir Gavrieli donated early to the relief effort around personal protective equipment, such as masks for medical workers. And as the president and CEO of the shoe retailer Tieks, Gavrieli sought out a way to mobilize his company to help.
Tieks bought additional sewing machines, developed mask patterns and set staff to work stitching masks that would be delivered to local hospitals and emergency rooms. When he realized that the effort produced only a few hundred masks per day, Gavrieli figured out a way to increase the output.
Through its #SewTogether campaign, Tieks offered gift cards to customers and fans who produced a certain number of masks. Practically overnight, Gavrieli said, Tieks mobilized tens of thousands of workers who eventually produced more than 1 million pieces of personal protective equipment.
“It was a great way to tap into the desire people already had to help,” said Gavrieli. “It let us have more of an impact by leveraging the best currency we had, which is the goodwill we had built up with our brands and the influence with our customers and fans, and then getting them to do something they wanted to do anyway.”
Through his online socially conscious financing company Aspiration, Joe Sanberg has noticed a similar spike in his customers’ interest in using their consumer dollars to effect social change. Through their Aspiration accounts, customers place their money with a financial organization that does not support fossil fuels, gun companies or private prison companies.
In recent months, Aspiration has redirected much of its charitable dollars to the racial justice organization Color of Change. The entity was one of the founding partners of the Greater Los Angeles Hospital Registry and has worked with Blue Apron to help get food to low-income Americans in need during the COVID-19 crisis.
“This is an easy time for companies to step up and do the right thing because all of the light is on,” said Sanberg. “The question is where were you before the world’s eyes were turned on to this and where are you going to be when the world moves on to something else?”
(Edited by Jeff Epstein and Matt Rasnic.)
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