How Corporate Activism Makes a Difference And Drives a Bottom Line

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It's June. That means the rainbow flag is everywhere throughout corporate America. As the anniversary of the LGBT rights movement, the month gives companies a platform to show support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community including their employees and customers.

It's easy to dismiss corporate floats in pride parades or rainbow-themed company logos as little more than marketing aimed at younger, urban consumers. Yet, a closer look at two cities, and some big-name brands, suggests that purposeful corporate activism runs deeper and has the potential to create inclusive communities and drive economic growth.

While the Supreme Court granted marriage equality for LGBTQ+ Americans in 2015, corporations helped create a culture that embraced the decision and have advocated for related civil rights issues that affect their employees and their bottom line.

Importantly, cities that have taken note are reaping rewards in new jobs and large corporate investments. Both Indianapolis and the greater Dallas-Fort Worth region make this point abundantly clear.

The Indiana tech-scene recently celebrated the arrival of Salesforce tower - and the 800 jobs, 500 new apprenticeships and spin-off economic development that come with it. But business leaders were quick to point out that such investment would not have happened without two things: Indianapolis’ existing non-discrimination ordinance and the repeal of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which critics charged opened the door to discrimination against LGBT Hoosiers.

Particularly during the RFRA fight, Indiana’s corporate titans sent an unmistakable message: the economic consequences of discriminatory policies are real and significant. 

Today, the new Indianapolis skyline is both a beacon for high-tech talent and evidence of the investment unleashed when communities and industry combine to create inclusive, business-friendly cultures.

The scene in greater Dallas-Fort Worth is different, but the region has mirrored Indianapolis in new growth.  And, once more, corporate activism has been a key ingredient.

In 2014, when Toyota USA announced they would move their headquarters from California to the Dallas suburb of Plano, they faced a major workforce challenge. While Toyota could boast of inclusive policies, other companies in Texas could fire their employees for being LGBTQ+. This lack of legal protection risked alienating employees and their spouses, putting Toyota at a disadvantage in the global fight for talent.

So they went to work. Toyota advocated for nondiscrimination ordinances with Plano’s city council. And they won.

Since then, the city has received billions of dollars in new investment, including from companies like Boeing and J.P. Morgan, both of which have expanded operations alongside Toyota. The car manufacturer’s voice mattered and has accelerated the city’s transformation.

For both Salesforce and Toyota, the fight for inclusive policies was about more than ‘feel-good’ activism. Company advocacy had real-world implications.

When done right, corporate activism supports core business objectives, engages employees and reflects corporate values. But successful activism requires companies to answer key questions:

How does an issue affect employees and key stakeholders (customers, investors and community)? What are our values? How do those values fit within our brand? What actions are we willing to take to make an impact?

Armed with answers, companies can then build a framework for action: Fund aligned advocacy organizations. Convene thought leaders within the industry. Support identity groups within the company. Target stakeholders through digital advertising. And increase CEO thought leadership around solutions.

Today’s issues are evolving and changing, so companies should establish a clear decision-making process to engage. They should know how to capitalize on opportunities in real time and avoid reputational hazards along the way. With honest conversations and careful planning, businesses and communities can both drive and be rewarded for their social leadership.

Jonathan Coffin is a vice president in the Indianapolis office of VOX Global, a strategic communications firm. He is also co-chair of the agency’s Diversity & Inclusion Practice Group. Carter Collins is an account executive in the Dallas office of VOX Global.

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