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Walking the Talk
Navigating Corporate Social Impact Through Turbulent Times

Senior Advisor of Corporate Social Impact Erin Ceynar shares how the philanthropic partner and nonprofit accelerator helps its clients craft and stand by authentic social-impact efforts, even in the face of headwinds.

Globally, the corporate social-impact ecosystem is at an inflection point. There has been a more significant push for transparency for businesses by stakeholders — specifically on issues relating to human rights. There has also been a shift from the traditional model of shareholder capitalism — where companies prioritize shareholder returns above all else; towards stakeholder capitalism, where businesses are also accountable to all stakeholders — including employees, consumers, communities and the environment. However, against a backdrop of wars in Europe and the Middle East, global inflation, energy markets in turmoil, and ongoing political uncertainty and climate-fueled disasters, corporate social impact/responsibility is under a watchful eye — and being criticized for not being productive for businesses or the communities they aim to benefit.

To understand the current corporate social-impact landscape and the barriers it faces, Sustainable Brands® sat down with Erin Ceynar, Senior Advisor of Corporate Social Impact at Tides — a philanthropic partner and nonprofit accelerator that collaborates with donors, foundations, businesses and other social enterprises to promote and facilitate change in various societal areas. At Tides, Ceynar helps clients build strategic-investment programs from the ground up — including consumer activation and smaller impact efforts such as employee engagement. Her work includes designing and facilitating a participatory grantmaking process that encourages companies to shift from a transactional approach to a trust-based one.

We asked how her nearly 20 years’ experience in philanthropy and social impact helps her organization and its clients navigate such volatile times.

How do you and your team at Tides engage with companies on corporate social-impact projects?

Erin Ceynar: Tides is a nonprofit and philanthropic organization committed to advancing social justice. We’re about shifting power and centering equity in everything we do. We have deep connections with not only donors — including companies — but also doers. Since 1976, we’ve partnered with companies open and willing to begin investing in programs that center justice and equity to create meaningful social outcomes. My portfolio includes companies at all stages of their corporate social-impact journey. But the thread that runs through all of them is a willingness to use their resources and influence to invest in a just and equitable society. Tides takes companies through the entire process of developing their corporate social-impact goals — from building a concrete vision and point of view through strategy implementation to best practices, protocols and integral operations. We can be an extension of a company’s social-impact team — supporting all facets of the work, ensuring that every dollar is used effectively and efficiently, and that impact is measured through their theory of change and ESG.

During times of economic stress, what are some ways that companies can keep their social-impact programs on track?

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EC: Undoubtedly, the corporate social-impact ecosystem is enduring growth and retraction. Some days, the pendulum is swinging forward; and some days, I feel whiplash. Companies are being challenged by their stakeholders, both customers and employees, to make meaningful social investments. And they don’t want words; they want action.

At the same time, corporate social-impact programs are being asked to do more with less. There have been cuts to staff and budgets; but with so many critical social-justice issues at stake — the climate crisis and fundamental human rights like access to voting, health and education — companies must, at a minimum, stay the course on their social-impact goals. Better yet, they must double down and commit to deepening their impact. For most companies we work with, staying steady in their social-impact programs through turbulence means exploring new ways of connecting social-impact work to core business efforts. Setting up a sustainable, integrated, corporate social-impact approach means it's more likely to resonate with employees and customers; they see themselves reflected in the company’s purpose. Time and time again, these programs weather all kinds of uncertainty — be it economic, leadership change, a pandemic, etc. These companies must remember that they aren’t just investing in community outcomes; they’re building their brand and reputation.

Younger employees expect to work for companies that take a stand on social issues and reflect their values. How can corporate social-impact programs play a role in engaging employees?

EC: My work as a Senior Advisor in corporate social impact means I interact with many different companies. Throughout the year, companies run the gamut about engaging employees or having a pulse on employees' expectations. Many toe a fine line — especially on the heels of layoffs and reorganizations. Engaging employees has to be meaningful; it has to be authentic. If it isn't, employees will read right through it. Some companies do this well. Some not.

Employee engagement can be everything from volunteer events to highly specific, skills-based volunteering. The outcomes for both may vary. Single-experience employee volunteering is often low impact for the nonprofit but high impact for employees. When we help our partners think about engaging employees, we’re focused on aligning those engagement programs with the employees' desires, the company’s goals and its bottom line.

Importantly, it’s no longer okay for companies to stay agnostic on social issues. Younger employees are pushing for brands to take a stand from within; and younger customers are also making their expectations known by where they spend their money. Social-impact programs are a critical component of attracting and retaining top talent. These programs reflect the values of the company and many of the employees who work there. They motivate, inspire and give power to their employees — who may become more likely to stay with these companies for the long haul.

Tides is focused on shifting power to changemakers and communities that have historically faced systemic barriers to opportunities. How do you see corporate social giving reflecting that commitment?

EC: Sometimes, it’s not so much what companies are doing, but how they are doing it. Could their corporate philanthropy be more nonprofit-centric? Could their volunteer programs focus on impact rather than outputs? Could their disaster-relief efforts center on communities often left behind by national or global efforts? Could they be using their real estate for social good? Could they be activating their customers to be better citizens of the world by using their communication channels? Could they shine more light on historically marginalized communities in their corporate philanthropy? Every company has the opportunity to use its positional power for good: A recent poll by Benevity found that “80 percent of US employees believe it is the responsibility of company leaders to take action in addressing racial justice and equity issues.” Don’t stay on the sidelines.

As an advisor, it is my ethical responsibility to amplify the work of historically marginalized communities. I want to sit at the table when corporations build their corporate social-impact programs. If invited, I provide a viewpoint often not heard within business circles. Investing in organizations with leaders who share the identity, lived experience, and/or geography of the community they serve is a highly effective way to drive impact and improve relationships with the communities a company seeks to support. Communities and their leaders know what they need to thrive; and there is growing evidence that nonprofits led by and for people closest to a community or issue are more innovative and better problem-solvers. However, only 4 percent of US philanthropic dollars go to organizations led by people of color most impacted by systemic inequity. For companies, this means that there is an opportunity and an obligation to stand out by supporting under-resourced and highly effective grassroots organizations.

A growing list of brands and investors are experiencing backlash for their ESG/social-impact initiatives. How does Tides advise its corporate partners to stay the course in such a charged climate?

EC: Companies need to take a hard look at their purpose. What are they solving for? How are they showing up in the world? Are you doing more harm than good? And if the company is doing some damage, how might they mitigate that with authenticity and integrity?

Backlash is noise and often doesn’t matter much. What does matter is a corporate regulatory environment that will only see more, not less, mandatory reporting in the future — despite backlash coming primarily from vocal fringes, media and sometimes employees. Take, for instance, the recent chilling effect we’re witnessing with corporate DEI on the heels of the Supreme Court's affirmative-action decision regarding college admissions. The shifting legal landscape doesn’t mean it’s time to step back on DEI efforts. Companies can’t afford to. By 2045, this country is on track to have mostly people of color. Aside from the moral and ethical imperative to advance equity and social justice, business has no choice but to prioritize DEI to serve customers, attract the best talent, and reach new markets. The Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t change these facts.

I do advise businesses to ask their legal counsel to partner with them in protecting companywide DEI efforts; this isn’t about rolling back DEI programs but about protecting them. Lastly, ensure you socialize how core DEI is to your company's success. Gaining internal alignment will dispel internal misconceptions.

How do you see the corporate social impact landscape changing over the next five years?

EC: Full disclosure: I have a graduate degree in Sociology. That said, I find the ‘S’ in ESG very important. I encourage companies to start reporting more consistently on S data. These standards start from the ground up. Irrespective of rating agencies, companies have their own fiduciary duty to measure and disclose material S information to shareholders. Companies are beginning to see that they can’t wait for the world to agree on corporate performance standards on racial and social justice. We’re seeing early-adopter corporations stepping up with S impact data. And honestly, more ESG investor funds require it. There is no doubt that S impact data is complex; it cannot be simply captured in a survey. It requires specialized taxonomies, questionnaires and independent verification.

In the next five years, we’ll see S impact data informing a company’s growth potential, competitive employee advantage, new market potential and more. At Tides, we know that focusing solely on the environment only gets you so far. People live on this planet; and we need to measure their improvement. Creating better S data gives the market something to price. That said, we will see practitioners of corporate social impact buying “outcomes'' in social marketplaces, similar to how one accepts carbon or environmental credits now. The ‘E’ in ESG has led innovation in this area. Organizations like Impact Genome and OutcomesX are changing this narrative; they’re building a market where nonprofits can sell their measurable and verified socially positive outcomes.