Introducing the Newest Facet of in/PACT Partnerships: CHANGEx

By John McNeel in Announcements
July 23, 2020 17:30

Introducing the newest facet of in/PACT partnerships: CHANGEx

In an increasingly uncertain world, companies and brands have a more important role than ever in becoming forces for positive change. But how to know which cause, which social purpose, which of the many problems and ills that need to be addressed is the right one? Right in the sense of being relevant and meaningful to your stakeholders, being right for your brand. Being the one thing that you can truly help solve. The one where you can make the biggest difference. CHANGEx will help you find your “x” -the one issue, problem, cause or catalyst for change that, once identified, gives you a purposeful true north, a meaningful platform to work from, towards making a real difference in the world. 

The pace of change in society and in the world at large has accelerated dramatically. Upheavals that once took years if not decades to play out are now occurring within a couple of news cycles. And, on the more positive side, in some areas if not all, progress also has been achieved more quickly - if often with major disruptions to the status quo.

This exponential change, and the heightened politicization that often accompanies it, present unique challenges to companies and brands that have increasingly sought to leverage their economic clout to stake a claim in terms of social impact. It’s become more critical than ever, but also more perilous, for corporations to “show up” and demonstrate how they are giving back to the communities in which they operate. 

Particularly when those communities are in flames or wracked with civil and political strife.

How have the dual “pillars of good” in the average company — corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility (or CSR) — risen and responded to this challenge? Sadly, in most cases they’ve struggled to keep up with a rapidly evolving social environment and have failed to reform and to innovate to stay relevant.

In a nutshell, the world has changed; CSR hasn’t.

Over the past several decades, the purpose-based programs and initiatives of corporations have slowly evolved from what was initially a counter measure of sorts to more genuine, deliberate, meaningful and yes, even impactful commitments to “do well by doing good.” But the departments that run these programs have also developed a form of ossification, doing the same thing over and over again while expecting that these well-intentioned efforts will allow the company to continue to bask in the glow of being a good upstanding corporate citizen. But the old ways have stopped working; the glow has faded.

In a time when “cancel culture” continues to capture headlines, this represents a danger for companies not nimble enough to respond to evolving social expectations. A recent survey from the Zeno Group found that 76% of global consumers will actively turn against brands whose values or behaviors they disagree with.

In some forward-looking corporations, encouragingly, CSR has started to evolve, to become more nimble, more integrated into the fabric of the business, more willing to call old philanthropic habits into question, and spearheading innovative approaches to connect corporate purpose to authentic social activism. 

Today’s change makers started by changing their ways.

These corporate players realized it’s not enough to simply publish a “diversity and inclusion statement” — both employees and customers want to see how the organization is putting action behind the words. These corporate players have moved beyond the “big cardboard check” model of philanthropy and involved multiple stakeholders in serving the CSR program, while placing it at the heart of both the company’s operations and its commitments to the community. 

A few examples come to mind: 

  •  The work that the retailer Target has done with a ground-breaking loyalty program that invites guests to earn the ability as they shop to help Target direct contributions to thousands of community nonprofits across the country. It’s a great example of “bottom up” corporate philanthropy.
  •  The financial services software provider and digital banking leader FIS putting “charitable giving as a service” front and center in responding to COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis. Benefits include allowing bank account holders to manage their charitable giving through their digital banking platform, round up to charity and redeeming loyalty points for charity.
  •  NIKE announced it will deploy $40 million over four years to support the Black community in the U.S., focused on investing in and supporting organizations that put social justice, education and addressing racial inequality in America at the center of their work.
  •  Apple has one-upped NIKE by pledging $100 million for a new Racial Equity and Justice Initiative that will "challenge the systemic barriers to opportunity and dignity that exist for communities of color, and particularly for the black community."

So, what are some of the major trends disrupting CSR today that these companies have understood and that others would do well to heed? Here are the five most important ones:

1) We live in a world of unrelenting, and unforgiving, transparency. The tandem of ubiquitous social media with renewed social activism, has meant that corporations are subject to an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Whether it’s internal whistle blowers, cell phone videos captured of front line customer service reps, or the “hypocrisy police” subjecting your every move to critical analysis, the boundaries between the company and society have fallen. 

2) Interconnectedness rules, and silos are a thing of the past. A corollary to transparency is the need to integrate CSR into the very heart of how the company does business. The reigning protocols around “separation of church and state” have meant that CSR always kept marketing, sales and operations at arm’s length, out of a perceived need for purity of intention. Although no CSR or corporate philanthropy effort should ever lose its north star of purpose, it actually will help elevate the entire organization to put CSR first, as a key driver to how the company operates in the world. 

3) Giving back is no longer without risk. It sounds paradoxical but one of the sad byproducts of today’s hyper-partisan political environment is that simple things like generosity itself can become drawn into the controversy of the day. The increased social unrest that puts greater risk on the CSR choices the companies can make shouldn’t mean backing off from social engagement — simply that it’s necessary in today’s environment to bring even more vigilance and vetting to the process.

4) Standing on the sidelines is no longer an option. Avoiding hot potato social issues has been a corporate pastime pretty much forever. But trying to sidestep important topics in the national conversation these days simply won’t cut it any more. As governments and other institutions have lost authority and credibility, companies and brands are increasingly looked to by societies hungry for moral leadership. With that newfound power comes responsibility. Brands must today make their opinions known in a way that is authentic and, as much as possible, non political.

5) Real change comes from real choices. It used to be enough to pick a broad-based, one-size-fits-all, generally fairly vanilla cause platform to inform your company’s CSR initiatives. No one would be offended, and by casting the net wide, you could hope to appeal to the greatest number. The result was often cookie cutter philanthropy that, while it didn’t run the risk of tainting your brand, it didn’t particularly enhance it either: there was no ROI, either for the company and often not for the chosen cause area as well. 

Focus is key to any true social change program. Don’t boil the ocean. Find the one thing that’s right for your brand, will resonate with your stakeholders, but most importantly, where you have the greatest chance of actually achieving meaningful change.

And, although it’s hard these days to look at the breaking news maelstrom or the intense political warfare happening all around us without feeling despair and even paralysis, CSR can actually represent a form of salvation and renewal for most corporations. By leaning in, staying deeply authentic and empathetic, “CSR reinvented” can bring the hope and positive impact the world so sorely needs.

Visit to learn more about how companies and brands can orchestrate meaningful social change in a challenging world.