What's next for corporate civic engagement?
Riegel is the co-founder of Motivote, a company that uses behavioral economics to help businesses, advocacy groups and candidates engage younger people and boost election turnout.
Over the past six months, we’ve spoken with 60-plus operators in corporate responsibility, social impact, public policy and employee engagement on their civic engagement plans for employees and customers.
These conversations illuminated the why and how companies are incorporating civic engagement into their strategies — from the largest global institutions to 50-person startups. While elections are one aspect of democratic participation, for most companies civic engagement efforts have centered on voter registration and participation.
Of the many themes that came out of these interviews (we’ll continue to share insights over the coming months!), one thing was abundantly clear: There is a dramatic shift in how executives, employees, customers and other stakeholders think about civic engagement:
- Corporate civic engagement is now “mainstream.” A couple of years ago, many companies wouldn’t touch voting as a topic. Now, they feel they can’t sit out.
- For thousands of companies, 2020 was the first time they dipped their toe into the democracy pool. For many, it felt ad hoc and scattered. Now, they’re getting more structured by defining goals, delegating owners, and starting well ahead of time.
- Companies are linking democracy to social impact goals — and especially to diversity, equity and inclusion commitments they’ve publicized. Defining “Corporate Civic Responsibility” as a subset of corporate social responsibility (which typically manages employee volunteering and giving) underscores this shift.
There are many factors driving this shift; some of the biggest include:
- The combination of pandemic-fueled unrest and the heightened visibility of social justice movements motivated business leaders to think more critically about structural inequalities, political leadership and the role of business in society.
- Employees are increasingly vocal about wanting their companies to step up. With the war for talent resulting from the Great Reshuffle, executives feel pressure to deliver.
- Millennials advancing into leadership roles are bringing their civic passion with them. Their priorities tend to reflect the belief that companies can be a force for good.
So where do we go from here? Here’s what five leaders predict for the year ahead.
1. Getting businesses involved in democracy is no longer a question of if — it’s how
Following 2020, companies now better understand the importance of civic engagement — and there’s no turning back. Says Malcom Glenn, senior advisor to social impact firm Meteorite and the founder and CEO of MG Equity Consulting: “The dam of engagement has broken.”
As a result, the question is no longer if companies will engage but “what they’re going to do and how far they’re going to go.”
While different strategies will make sense for different businesses, some concrete ways that companies will get involved include: Encouraging employees and customers to vote, recruiting poll workers, and using their corporate voices to commit to key principles of democracy
Glenn anticipates that companies will need to “throw out old plans” and “be prepared to be pushed by employees to take stances that were once thought of as beyond the pale.”
Part of this pressure comes from the changing expectations the public has for business, explains Juliette Boberg, senior director of the civic-focused consulting firm Impactual.
According to PwC’s Trust in US Business Survey, 80 percent of consumers say their trust in companies stayed the same or grew during the pandemic. “With public confidence in business increasing in the U.S., consumers expect companies to do more to address societal problems.”
2. Internal advocates will leverage data to prove the ROI of democracy investments
For the few companies that have historically invested in civic engagement, they often did so because it was good corporate citizenship. The decision to focus on it usually hinged on whether executives were passionate about the cause.
Turns out, there are real economic benefits to being a “good corporate citizen.” Post-2020 analysis offers “proof that this work can enhance a company’s culture and bottom line,” says Steven Levine of Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan coalition with more than 1,250 corporate members.
Civic Alliance found its members were “more profitable, grew faster, and were seen as more valuable to investors than the overall S&P 500. The data is clear: Civic engagement is a smart business strategy,” says Levine.
The organization’s Corporate Civic Playbook is a first-of-its-kind resource building a business case to make corporate civic engagement a staple of every company's core social responsibility.
Results show that civic engagement enhances performance and rewards investors, creates purpose and deepens employee engagement, connects with customers, and builds brand loyalty. Seventy-nine percent of consumers agree that companies should take action on political and social issues — and that it supports and builds communities.
For business leaders who want their companies to be good civic stewards, these metrics are powerful. Outside of personal interest or passion, it’s clear that civic engagement has a positive impact on the bottom line and is a beneficial business decision.
3. Business civic engagement participation will expand beyond presidential election cycles
In case we haven’t heard the phrase enough: The last presidential election was, in so many ways, “unprecedented.” If leaders saw their involvement as a one-time thing based on extenuating circumstances, the energy around civic engagement could quickly deflate.
However, experts say that’s not the case.
Business executives better understand the bottom-line civic engagement now, so it’s in their interest to institutionalize it, says Boberg.
She points to examples of consumer brands launching new civic initiatives detached from specific elections:
- MTV offers tools to help college students advocate for and fund on-campus voting options.
- Snapchat’s in-app Run for Office Mini helps young people explore opportunities to run for local office.
These examples show how companies think about their contributions to democratic infrastructure beyond Election Day reminders.
By expanding voting access and resources for younger people, and encouraging them to run for office, companies can help build a more representative, responsive democracy.
4. Companies will be moved by the consequences of not protecting democracy
Not only does civic engagement benefit the bottom line for individual companies, but it’s also in the financial interest of the entire business community to support pro-voter policies.
“The future of our democracy and our economy requires Americans who are civically engaged,” says Sarah Bonk, the founder of Business For America, a business alliance focused on nonpartisan, structural reform of government and elections. “The business community has a historic opportunity to use our influence for good.”
In addition to choosing how to promote education and encouragement for voters in elections, companies will also increasingly weigh decisions on when to get involved in policy discussions — for example, making statements against legislation that makes it harder to vote.
Mike Ward, founder of the consulting firm Civic Results, explains that while most companies will want to avoid wading into policy fights, many will decide it’s worth it — not only because their customers and employees are asking them to take stronger stands, but because they understand that pro-voting policies are better for business.
“Every anti-voter policy risks further destabilizing our government, which is bad for business,” Ward says. “Business leaders are choosing to take action in support of pro-voter policy outcomes because they know that a strong democracy supports a strong economy."
5. Leaders will plan ahead and institutionalize democracy efforts with new tools and resources
For many companies, 2020 was their “v1” of civic engagement. Now, leaders are looking to improve on their first draft.
During 2020, many leaders felt unsure about how to engage. Some said their attempts were more “spaghetti at the wall” than strategic. Others felt they waited too long to do anything, then feared being viewed as reactive or jumping on the bandwagon.
Leaders benefit from three differences this time around:
- Time and space: Farther out from the chaos of 2020, they’ve had room to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and how stakeholders responded.
- Strength in numbers: They no longer feel like they’re going at it alone. (As just one indicator, the number of companies committing to give time to vote grew from about 400 in 2018, to more than 2,000 in 2020.)
- Specific resources: Program managers have access to newly available, purpose-built toolkits designed to help them find good-fit strategies — and operationalize them.
Newly formed coalitions like Civic Alliance, Business For America and Time to Vote (helmed by PayPal, Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co) host convenings so program managers can learn from each other. Toolkits and templates mean they don’t have to start from scratch.
Leaders can also draw from examples of what peers have done in the Corporate Civic Playbook and “Civic Responsibility: The Power of Companies to Increase Voter Turnout” (a 2020 report from Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation).
As more corporate social responsibility and public policy teams turn to digital solutions to streamline their work, they are adopting software built for civic action as well.
In 2020, many companies shared links to nonpartisan websites like Turbovote, VoteAmerica and BallotReady to help employees and customers register to vote, learn about their voting options, and see who is on their ballot.
New digital tools like Motivote go further, helping voters make personalized voting plans with teams, gamification and rewards while equipping program managers with real-time engagement data.
Companies are increasingly interested in data that proves their impact and helps them communicate it, which they can do with the help of digital solutions.
With more resources at their fingertips and a wider set of options, companies can find strategies and tools that fit with their culture, resources and engagement curve — whether they are still just starting out or ready to take it to the next level.
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