Erin Reilly has compiled an amazing record during the last 20+ years of influencing efforts to create positive social impact at leading west coast companies including Nike, Google and Yahoo. She drew on these experiences to lead a business-only workshop at the 2021 Engage for Good conference on “Making The Case for Growing Your Social Impact Team.” In this Q&A, Reilly sheds light on her experience and offers advice for gaining buy-in for corporate social impact efforts.
Q: You’ve been doing work related to sustainability and purpose for over 20 years at companies such as Nike, Yahoo, Google and Twilio. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in terms of how “doing good” is treated by company leaders?
A: “Doing good” has gone from a rare side program to a business imperative that investors, employees and customers are vocally demanding. Stakeholder capitalism — the idea that companies should generate long-term value for multiple stakeholders, rather than short-term shareholder profit — is no longer something only social impact professionals think about. It’s expected and company leaders are paying attention. The pandemic sped up this trend, and leaders are now at an inflection point, faced with a new and growing charter to serve the many stakeholders in their communities.
Q: At Twilio you’ve taken the approach of creating a business within the business that generates revenue that can be applied to your social impact work. How did that come about and how does it work?
A: Since starting my career, I had a sense that business can and should fundamentally make the world a better place. Despite the best intentions, most approaches to corporate social responsibility today run counter to capitalism’s basic power, which is to generate a profit. During my time at Nike, Yahoo, and Google, I started to understand how it might be possible to leverage the force of capitalism for good.
The path forward really clicked when I joined Twilio and focused on making Twilio.org, our social impact arm, a source of revenue. In selling Twilio software and services to nonprofits at a reduced rate, those organizations leverage the power of digital communications to change and improve lives. That generates revenue, which we then reinvest in our social impact programs. With a healthy revenue stream, we’re able to support nonprofits at a much larger scale, which in turn means their impact is multiplied. Instead of needing to “make the case” for doing good each year, we’ve created an engine for good that has grown impact by 150% year over year, supports over 6,000 nonprofits and reaches hundreds of millions of people annually.
Q: For many years many companies in the tech sector were lauded for being highly innovative and fast-paced and criticized for being laggards in creating positive social impact. How would you assess the state of the sector on that score now?
A: I think intentions have mostly been good, but the model was broken. We hadn’t integrated doing good into the core business. Let’s look back — the first era of social impact was the age of philanthropy. Titans of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie ran their companies as unfettered profit machines, then directed a small portion of their wealth toward philanthropy; causing a basic disconnect between the company that created the wealth (at all costs) and the philanthropy it funded.
Then came the age of CSR, when organizations brought social impact into the business, but operated and funded it separately to protect the “sanctity” of the work. The core value that the company created didn’t have a social impact lens, which led to incredible social impact projects and programs, but net neutral or negative impact because the main business was disconnected from social impact. Businesses can’t fundamentally make the world a better place if their core products have negative social impact. Lastly, doing good was a cost center, which constrained growth for those programs. Well-meaning tech companies have embraced this model and stunted their potential social impact without giving it a chance to grow.
Now we’re moving into the third era: companies are integrating social impact into the core value their company delivers, and generating revenue so the org can scale as the company grows. If more tech companies embrace this integrated impact model, I think we’ll get to see a massive increase in the scale of impact.
Q: What advice would you offer to company leaders seeking to build vibrant social impact into the way they manage their companies?
First, ensure social impact is core to your company, not a siloed off department separate from the main company.
Second, align the social impact with the value your company generates in the world. By doing that, you’ll generate revenue from doing good. And be sure to establish metrics to measure and be accountable for impact, not just revenue.
Third, reinvest the profit you generate from doing good into growing social impact