Companies no longer have the luxury of ignoring the big picture when considering charitable giving.
"We must move from charity and generosity to dignity and justice," said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, during the Beyond Charity to Justice: The Role of Modern Philanthropy session at PRDecoded. "We look to Martin Luther King, Jr., who said philanthropy should not allow the philanthropist to overlook economic injustice that made philanthropy necessary."
In the time of a reckoning over racial injustice, climate change and a global pandemic, audiences are holding companies accountable for their role in unjust systems, and organizations are scrambling to find the right way to prove to stakeholders they take these issues seriously.
After the death of George Floyd in May, social media was awash with brands committing to diversity, equity and inclusion, but Walker says companies must go beyond verbal commitments.
"The performative nature was pretty clear to many that [some corporate action] was superficial virtue signaling and guilt grants given to Black organizations," Walker said, adding that audiences were skeptical of authentic engagement. "Many companies had the position that, 'We can do better,' but what are you doing to demonstrate that?"
According to Walker, such demonstrations can include promises to increase the number of people of color on company boards by a certain percentage over a certain time, recruiting at historically Black colleges and developing internal leadership academies for the advancement of associates of color.
Once a brand has committed to taking action internally, the struggle then becomes communicating that message to a demanding public.
Again, authenticity is key, said Michele Moore, VP of global communications at the Ford Foundation.
"Communications professionals have to speak authentically from the brand and address issues of concern, but be reflective of the values of the company and its commitment to DE&I," she said.
Failing to do so won't engage audiences and will feel inauthentic to a company's employee base, which can spell even more trouble.
Moore noted that the easiest way to find success in diversity initiatives is having diversity in the communications team.
"As PR professionals, you should be looking at who is on your team and where there are opportunities to create more inclusivity," she said.
Diversity means more than including more people of color, according to Moore. Having a diverse team of comms people in the room when issues are being discussed offers various perspectives.
"Not only do you need racial diversity, but diversity about where those individuals come from and what sectors they have experience in," Moore said. "There's not just one way to do it, and that diversity of thought and experience is so important."
Moore offered one last bit of advice: pause and build values and messaging from internal leadership first.
"Sometimes the best thing is not to be immediately responsive, but understand how the statements you're making can be backed up from institutional behavior," she said.
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