Addressing Complex Social Issues through Corporate Activism
An Interview with TOMS Chief Giving Officer Amy Smith
In our previous post, CEO Danielle Holly provided insights on what’s next for pro bono, including issue area-focused service. Companies are more willing than ever to take on complex and even controversial social issues like natural and man-made disasters, so much so that we recently released Disaster Response: From Relief to Resiliency, a report illustrating how skills-based volunteering can play a crucial role in building disaster resiliency in the social sector and our communities at large.
TOMS, the shoe company that pioneered the one-for-one giving model, has always been a purpose-driven business. Last year, the company took an active stand against gun violence following the Thousand Oaks shooting. Danielle Holly sat down with TOMS Chief Giving Officer Amy Smith to hear how they made that decision and how they approach being a brand that takes a stand on issues.
Listen to the full interview with Amy Smith on Pro Bono Perspectives.
DH: TOMS has built social impact into its model from the beginning with its one-for-one model. Purpose-driven business is becoming increasingly common. How does this shape the TOMS experience?
AS: There are some really unique things about TOMS having started as a company that has giving at its core. TOMS’ mission statement is using business to improve lives. Giving is truly part of our DNA. We bring that culture to everything we do. We really try to walk the talk by approaching issues that need to be addressed and enlisting our customer to help make a difference. We do this in a few ways, whether it’s through the customer’s purchases or creating other ways to engage, such as signing a postcard to Congress urging them to pass universal background checks on gun purchases as we did back in November. The people that work here choose to be part of something bigger and love the opportunity to go on giving trips to support our local communities through some of the on-the-ground nonprofit organizations that we partner with in Los Angeles, in the Netherlands, in France. Beyond that, our employees are doing their own interesting volunteer projects or social activism or creative art.
DH: TOMS has taken a stand against gun violence, both in its giving and in encouraging politicians to pass universal background checks. This seemed to come from a very personal reaction from your founder, Blake Mycoskie, after the Thousand Oaks shooting - not necessarily because it made good business sense. Can you share more about how TOMS thinks about the intersection between business, mission and simply doing what’s right?
AS: It’s a hard question for companies to navigate. At TOMS, we knew the world around us was changing, and we had already been asking ourselves “Where else should we be putting our energy and focusing our impact?” When the Thousand Oaks shooting happened, it just felt like the right thing to do on every level. Blake was driving into work and his wife called him and said, “There’s been another shooting. This time, it’s in our backyard. Somebody has to do something.” And he thought, “Well, if not us, who? If not now, when?” We never had the conversation, “Is this going to help sell more TOMS?” or “Is this going to be ‘good’ for the commercial business?” We just really got clear that 100 people are dying from guns in the United States every day, and that is just not acceptable. We talked to policy, grassroots and research organizations, we talked to survivors — anyone who would help us learn as fast as we could. We committed to giving $5 million to ending gun violence. It can be perceived as a highly politically charged issue, but it was very clear for us.
DH: Did you see a positive response from employees?
AS: Yes, mostly. Everyone comes to work with their own personal set of values. There were some people who had very fair questions about our philanthropic platform and, separately, those who feel strongly about their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. And while this was definitely choosing a side on a particular issue, we felt as though it was the right thing to do and did as best we could to communicate to employees that this was about responsible gun ownership and reducing the number of people killed by guns each day, not about taking anyone’s guns away.
DH: TOMS has positioned itself as a pioneer in mission-oriented business, first with the one-for-one model, and now by demonstrating how companies can put their economic might and brand behind issues that matter. How would you help other companies think about how to engage?
AS: We’re building it as we learn, but there’s a framework that has emerged for us that can apply to natural or man-made disasters.
- Align values and actions: That’s the first and most important question to ask yourself: “Is this authentic to us? Can we be credible in this space? Or are we just jumping on the bandwagon or a cultural moment?”
- Enter humbly: We are not the experts, but we know how to work with giving partners or nonprofit organizations that are experts. We surround ourselves with those experts, learning as much as we can before we act.
- Put your money where your mouth is: Our $5 million donation was the largest corporate gift publicly given to date.
- Engage your customer. We wanted to engage our TOMS customers beyond buying our product. For us with gun violence, this was asking people to fill out a postcard urging Congress to pass universal background checks. Over 750,000 people signed a postcard. More than we ever could have imagined. People are hungry to find a quick, but meaningful, way to engage.
DH: What final words would you leave with us?
AS: Companies taking a stand need to ensure that they can do it authentically and with credibility. There is a new generation of really savvy customers and they see right through it if you’re not. The data says that consumers will respect you more and be more interested in you as a brand, even if they don’t believe in what you’re standing for. If you do nothing, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant. And that’s much worse than having someone say, “I don’t like the stand you took, but I respect and admire you for having a point of view. We all have a role to play in building a better tomorrow.”