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Office Hours: Leslie Crutchfield on Corporate Social Responsibility During A Global Pandemic

As the role of business in society continues to evolve, many organizations are rising to the challenge to support their community’s needs during COVID-19. For this defining moment in history, many companies will be remembered for their response during this pandemic. Leslie Crutchfield, executive director of Business for Impact at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, explains how socially minded businesses develop during the coronavirus and how companies are addressing both societal and environmental needs.

Do companies have a social responsibility to help their communities’ needs?

In our work at Business for Impact we believe that companies do have a responsibility to address the needs of society and the planet. We recognize that business leaders increasingly face new and urgent environmental and societal challenges that materially impact operations and revenues, and therefore, the bottom line. At Georgetown McDonough, I teach the MBA strategy course, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), using a multi-stakeholder lens that challenges students to think critically about how companies balance the needs of all stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. 

In the past, societal and environmental concerns were often relegated to corporate philanthropy and traditional CSR compliance efforts. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, investors have increasingly focused on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance, which drives companies to strengthen their CSR approaches. This new trend manifests in Business Roundtable’s new “Statement on the Purpose of the Corporation,” which emphasizes investing in employees, dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers, and supporting the communities where businesses operate, as well as delivering value for customers and long term returns to shareholders.

Are there examples of companies that are doing this well?

The most recognizable pioneers of business responsibility include well-known brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Timberland, and The Body Shop, who helped ignite the movement in the 1970s. Social responsibility has since moved mainstream as more companies strive to meet ESG investment criteria and employ CSR strategies to compete in the marketplace. Two standout examples include Unilever, a global leader in sustainability, and Bank of America, a founding partner of Business for Impact. Bank of America employs a range of strategies to drive social and environmental impact, ranging from philanthropy through its charitable foundation, to commercial grade investment sustainability products, such as green bonds.

How can corporate social responsibility efforts meet the needs of those communities greatly impacted by the virus?

In times of crisis, the best CSR efforts first meet the urgent needs of the people most impacted. With COVID-19, vulnerable communities require cash to address their immediate needs. Bank of America committed $100 million to communities impacted by the coronavirus, and this swift action funded medical response, food insecurity, access to learning, and support for vulnerable populations. Other generous early cash donors included Business for Impact’s New Strategies for Nonprofit Leaders program sponsors JPMorgan Chase, who committed $50 million globally to communities impacted by the pandemic; American Express, who pledged $5 million to support groups like International Medical Corps and Feeding America; and Wells Fargo who will give $6.5 million.

Some industries are well positioned to help fight the virus on the frontlines, including pharmaceutical retailers like CVS Health and Target. Both companies are making a positive impact on customers and communities during the crisis. CVS Health remains committed to keeping its stores open, in addition to hiring 50,000 more workers and giving $500 bonuses to employees who work during the crisis. CVS Health also is also pivoting for consumers to provide no-cost delivery services, waiving co-pays for subscribers to Aetna insurance, and lifting refill limits. Target also is scaling up while investing more than $300 million in added wages, introducing a new paid leave program, offering bonus payouts, and relief fund contributions.

Companies are rejiggering manufacturing capabilities to produce urgently needed supplies and ensuring that essential goods flow through supply chains. We are even seeing breweries and perfumeries worldwide shifting production to manufacture hand sanitizer and disinfectant to donate to hospitals and frontline healthcare workers. 

How are companies anchoring their corporate coronavirus response in compassion?

Major brands are running advertisements positioned around compassion and promoting prosocial behaviors, such as hand washing and physical distancing. For example, healthcare companies, like Tylenol, are running campaigns centered on messages like their “#StayHome” ad, which emphasizes the importance of staying home to support nurses and other health care professionals. Similarly, Dove has been running a “Health Care Hero” campaign with an ad, “Courage is Beautiful,” featuring dramatic images of the marks left on healthcare workers’ faces from protective masks. Owned by Unilever, Dove also is donating hand washing soap to a number of nonprofits operating at the community level.

Do you think coronavirus will impact social movements? Will new social movements arise from this time in history?

Coronavirus is both impacting existing social movements and sparking new ones. In the United States, new grassroots groups are rising up to protest shelter-in-place orders and advocate to reopen local businesses, so that they can get back to work to revive the economy. Existing movements are shifting from in-person protests, to online agitation, as demonstrated by environmentalists who canceled events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. The lethal impact of COVID-19 on low-income communities and people of color is bringing to light social disparities of health in the United States and the challenges of a system based on privatized health insurance. I hope to see positive changes in the U.S. health and economic system occur as a result of the global health and economic disaster caused by COVID-19.

What can people do to help others in this moment of crisis?

If you are a business leader, think first of your employees and your customers. What can you do to protect their health and livelihoods?

Every individual can contribute by practicing physical distancing and hand washing, as well as supporting front line nonprofits and advocating for policies that promote public health. In the grand scheme of things, it may feel insignificant what one person does, but keep in mind that millions of actions and voices, when coordinated in unison, can have an enormous impact. One of my favorite speeches is Robert F. Kennedy’s “Ripple of Hope” given in South Africa in 1966. He said each individual action “sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of oppression and resistance.”

For more information, please visit Business for Impact’s new e-newsletter, CSR in the Time of Coronavirus.

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