Regardless of what’s happening politically, companies must feel empowered to act NOW!
One hundred days is an arbitrary amount of time in which to assess any presidential administration’s progress and promises, ambitions and aspirations. But ever since FDR, it’s something Americans do to rate both the progress and proficiency of their President and those within the executive branch of government. Now that we have recently met the Trump Administration’s hundred-day marker, journalists and pundits -- much like myself -- are busy analyzing, handicapping, critiquing, measuring, and generally grading the new White House’s performance.
Depending on where you personally stand on the political spectrum, and whether your issue is health care, tax reform, job creation, national security, climate change, or any one of a dozen other pressing matters, that progress has been stupendous or stunted. Exciting or excruciating. Admirable or awkward.
However, what government should never be is causative, or determining, of how business behaves: business-led social change can, and does, lead to economic strength.
As the CEO of a national nonprofit and having spent a little less than two decades on Wall Street and in media covering business news, I am honored to work with some extraordinary corporate leaders who are exemplary citizen philanthropists. One of the most concerning trends I see these days is the tendency among some companies – not all – to adopt a wait-and-see attitude around the urgent matter of corporate social responsibility (CSR). The idea seems to be, let's sit back and see how the political climate evolves, where regulation lands, whether tax reform is doable and what shape health care reform takes. In other words, wait to see what the economic outlook is a year from now, possibly even two years from now. See how the government’s decisions and policies might affect everything from school lunches to stock markets. I cannot tell you how paralyzing this kind of thinking is, and how damaging and contradictory it is to the reality that companies, business in general, have tremendous power to do good – whatever is, or isn’t, happening in government.
I have been fortunate enough to have a front-row seat over the last six years, witnessing first-hand what forward-thinking, socially responsible corporations and industry leaders are doing to improve society and overall quality of life on a number of levels. I see their impact directly -- in our organization’s case -- empowering youth who, through our group’s initiatives, help ensure a healthy, high-achieving future for their generation around nutrition and physical activity in school and community environments impacting academic performance and health.
Organizations who work with us, like SAP, Land O’Lakes, WorkForce Software, and others, aren’t waiting to see which way the political winds are blowing. They’re acting now. They’re putting the needs of America’s youth – their future customers and workforce – first. And they’re not only making our nation greater in the process, they’re connecting better to their employees and consumers by demonstrating what they stand for and in the process, their bottom lines are improving too because they know they have the power to change lives. Students can thrive academically, and adopt the behavior, tools and readiness to learn, because leaders of consequence like the ones I work with every day, want to collaborate with organizations like mine. However, there are hundreds of other corporate executives that can, and should, do more to advocate for climates of wellness in our schools across America. Companies would be making a sound investment in our nation’s future workforce by adopting this mission regardless of when -- or if -- government chooses to address this priority.
Not long ago, Chuck Templeton, an entrepreneur and the founder of OpenTable.com, in an article in Fast Company entitled “Building Businesses That Stand for Something,” wrote, “It is no longer acceptable (or smart) to create a business just to make money.” Citing issues such as income inequality, diminishing natural resources, and aging infrastructures, Templeton wrote “If we want to have a future better than our past, companies need to stand for something. These challenges are too big for governments and NGOs to solve without the leadership of business.”
In other words, business cannot exercise complacency and leave things to government. They can, and should, lead the way in confronting, addressing, and even solving, social problems along with government. During the 2017 Milken Institute Global Conference, CEOs from Cisco, EY, Campbell Soup and Wells Fargo gathered together to share their ideas for how the education system in America needs to better prepare our students for the workforce. Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup, noted, "in the context of reselling the workforce," we need to "give them life skills so they can lead happier, healthier lives." Cisco CEO, John Chambers, rightly pointed out, "it's the speed of change. And so we have to go with not only a national agenda in terms of digitization, a startup mentality because that's where most of the jobs will be created."
My friend Greg Petraetis, COO for Midmarket and Partner Ecosystem at SAP North America, put it best. Writing recently in The Huffington Post, he said, “We’re witnessing a significant shift today in the desire of consumers. More and more, people are preferring—and are willing to back with their wallets—brands that are, as the saying goes, doing good. This, consequently, is prompting business owners and even large corporations to become more socially responsible, and to treat CSR as more than a passing fad.” There is progress. In that same article, Petraetis points out that while fewer than 20 percent of S&P 500 companies published a sustainability or corporate responsibility report in 2011, more than 80 percent did in 2015. A hefty 64 percent of CEOs today view Corporate Social Responsibility as core to their business. Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, has gone so far as to describe his company as “the world’s biggest” non-government organization, noting, “The main thing we’re trying to do is give every brand we sell . . . a social purpose.”
We cannot look to government with rising deficits and growing debt for inspiration or, even worse, for permission. Support for vital corporate social responsibility needs help right now. Washington will catch up later. Today, corporations, partnering with organizations like mine, can move the needle on dozens of urgently needed solutions to the challenges facing our country. Our future is dependent on CSR, but it's not just an acronym for Corporate Social Responsibility, it stands for something far more pressing to consider - Care Substantiates R(OI)- companies responding to, and serving, the needs of their employees, customers and their future workforce should look no further than the most critical investment they can make - in caring for their people.
Alexis Glick is the CEO of GENYOUth (genyouthnow.org), a national youth-empowerment and school-wellness nonprofit.