The following Q&A was conducted with Steve Barton, VP of Strategic Initiatives for Northern California Grantmakers. This year, Northern California Grantmakers has moved its annual Corporate Philanthropy Institute online (happening October 14, 2020) due to COVID-19, and will be exploring the role of companies in the responses to COVID-19 and racial justice. We wanted to explore these topics with Steve, and hope the Q&A sparks some new ideas for CSR practitioners on how they can have an impact in the current moment.
Q: Northern California Grantmakers has moved your annual Corporate Philanthropy Institute online this year. What are you most excited for?
A: The next best thing to being in-person is gathering to talk about issues inherent in the problems we’re trying to solve in philanthropy and in general. It’s unfortunate that it takes the events of COVID-19 and the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and countless others to get us to this point, but it’s the opportunity to get us to this dialogue and lift up the role companies can play.
A virtual conference is also an opportunity to give people a different kind of experience. We’re hoping to surprise people, by not just having a screen talking at them, but by bringing more voices into the conversation. We will hold up a mirror in a way that’s uniquely possible with virtual programming.
Q: What do you think is different about the challenges facing us this year versus in previous years? How are these challenges engaging companies in new ways?
A: COVID-19 and the calls for racial justice are entirely different from what we’ve experienced previously. To be fair, many companies have been on a diversity journey, and maybe an equity and inclusion journey, but it’s been a discussion that hasn’t always had the intensity of purpose behind it. The time we’re now in requires that. How we recover from this disastrous pandemic and how we address the issues raised by the uprisings and calls for justice across the country make for a very different environment.
One of the big challenges is ‘how’ and ‘who’ holds the vision for companies’ engagement. Our hiring, diversity, energy, environment, government relations departments… all that comes into play. Using our voice is incredibly important to show leadership in the space, and using our ability to work with government and advocate for change is also a new and different way companies can play a role.
In this era of enhanced engagement on the part of companies, there will be fears about the reactions of stakeholders, whether customers, shareholders, or pundits. We’ve seen companies demonstrate how standing up for the right thing, standing up for justice, can attract people and build support for the company. There has been a growing expectation for companies to be socially responsible and this steps right into that expectation. It will be important to stay on this journey and work with each other to navigate through what will certainly be a challenge, but these times call for us to use all the resources and tools at our disposal.
Q: Let’s dig into some of the topics you’ll be exploring. What is your advice for CSR practitioners who want to make an impact in the dual pandemics of both COVID-19 and systemic racism? What questions do they need to start asking themselves to ensure that they have a cohesive, thoughtful, authentic response?
A: We hope you’ll join us at CPI to hear advice and experiences from our speakers on how they’ve responded, the thinking behind it, and how they’re thinking about the future.
The racial justice work really is about authenticity. Rather than putting out a statement, what are we authentically willing to do? Companies and others will be held accountable for their expressions of intent, interest, and belief. There’s deep inquiry about what we’re ready and willing to do and how we can increase our readiness and willingness to take this on internally within our four walls and externally to address the barriers, address systemic racism and really make equity a reality. Our success in accomplishing that is a business imperative; it will add to our impact, to our success, and to a growing customer base. But it’s important it not stop there. What is our role in the larger society around the issues that have been raised?
Companies should also not be afraid of bringing the community voice into the conversation and not be afraid of going outside of themselves to seek input, advice and guidance.
Q: As we look ahead to 2021, what is the work you’d like to see companies doing? How should companies think about their ongoing responsibility to engage in these and other social issues?
A: What happens in the next several months will reverberate for years to come. The work of 2021 is unclear, but whatever happens politically and in terms of COVID-19, there is serious work around equity, justice, inclusion, and fighting hate. Understanding the depth of systemic racism. That will be the work ahead.
In terms of an equitable economic recovery, if we are clear that service employees, gig workers, and others are particularly vulnerable, we need to do some basic things like ensure we have a more functional safety net to support people in the long haul. When we understand those most vulnerable will be most impacted, how do we build resilience?
As difficult as the issues are, many feel revitalized and excited at the opportunity to make a bigger difference. I can push the envelope and make deep investments in change. None of us are immune to the impacts of systemic racism. It’s up to us to inquire of ourselves and interrogate our own experience and not be afraid of that, not be fearful of it.
Q: What do you hope CPI Lite attendees will get out of the experience?
A: I hope attendees will be inspired by the opportunity to take on the issues and create change; that they’ll understand they’re not alone, they’re part of a larger community wrestling with the same issues. I hope they’ll find allies through this experience they can go to for advice and counsel as they work through what it means to be doing CSR and corporate philanthropy in 2020 and beyond.
Q: Where can interested CSR professionals learn more and register?
A: NCG’s website has all the details: https://ncg.org/events/virtual-corporate-philanthropy-institute-lite.