Taking a Stand: The Power of Companies Advocating for Policy Change for the Common Good

By Elizabeth Dove 

In a packed conference centre room at the International AIDS Conference in DC last month, the room was electric as a declaration signed by 20 CEO denouncing the travel bans on HIV+ people was introduced.  Through this public launch, the group hopes to gain more signatures.  I was impressed by the strategic and values-based CSR execution: an opportune moment (the AIDS conference) paired with an issue all of these companies do some work on (improving the well-being of HIV+ persons) and taking it to a new and more influential level (policy change) through CEO endorsement.  An excellent leveraging of their political capital to make a real difference on an social issue these companies already support.

Advocating for policy change is often an overlooked aspect of how companies can truly make a difference on an issue they support.  Moreover by taking a public stand, companies demonstrate integrity through the authenticity of their action.

When the pink Cadillacs roll up to the offices of elected representatives in the US, staffers know that they are in for a show of force.  Domestic violence prevention legislation is dear to the hearts of Mary Kay Cosmetics independent beauty consultants and they have been lobbying to see policy change.  The organization doesn’t simply donate funds to women’s shelters (although they do that too, as well as conduct annual national shelter surveys), they go right for the heart of the problem and train, organize and support their workforce to create political will around improved policies to protect women.  As one glowing rep shares in the Mary Kay Cosmetics corporate video on their lobbying efforts: “I want to make a difference for children and also for women who have been affected by sexual abuse and domestic violence…it’s not just a bill we are supporting: there are people’s lives at stake …” This expression of empowerment and deep connection to the issue shows us that, beyond the impact on the problem of domestic violence, supporting employees to work on issues core to their collective values has the potential for enormous impact on staff retention and loyalty.

Until recent years, this kind of campaigning had been left in the hands of citizens or “civil society” (which includes non-profits, NGOs, citizen movements, etc.).  But more and more – particularly in the US – companies are using their voice and resources to support social and environmental policy change.  Civil society, especially where there is a coordinated effort with them, benefits from this support.  The sector is woefully short as a whole on government relations experience and so many civil society organizations have not built the skills or relations to generate influence.  Those that have more advanced advocacy expertise are starting to engage the private sector on how they can help, such as Nature Conservancy Canada who partnered with Teck, a mining company, to successfully lobby the B.C. Provincial Government to ecologically protect a parcel of land near Columbia Lake.

There are some great CSR programs that use companies’ core competencies and scale to bring signature social or environmental issues out of the dark – to be public advocates.  One impressive example is the Bell “Let’s Talk” campaign about mental health that aims to “enhance awareness, understanding and treatment of mental illness and promote access to care and research across the country.”  They have spent and commit to continuing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on supporting mental health organizations, funding research, improving Bell’s own workplace policies and continuing their public campaign to combat stigma. Imagine the potential impact on policy change, not to mention employee and consumer loyalty, if Bell took their commitment one step further and used their influence to stand with mental health experts on needed policy change?

It takes commitment and courage for a company to stand up on a policy issue.  Where commitment already exists, adding advocacy on policy change is a low cost, high common good and business return activity that companies need to challenge themselves to add to their CSR mix.