Monday, January 18, 2021

Brand activism, once viewed as taboo, is becoming increasingly normalized—in some fields, it’s now required. As polls over the last few years have shown, a majority of consumers want companies to take a stand on social issues, as this June 2020 survey from The Corporate Social Mind reveals. This year, brands taking action on behalf of voting rights and democracy have seen a strong uptick. Companies are allowing employees time to vote and engaging in other nonpartisan efforts to increase civic engagement. 

Companies that lean into this trend are likely to see increased consumer loyalty and employee retention. And, in this high stakes and especially confusing election cycle, employers can make a big difference. According to a CNBC report, “One reason for low-voter turnout is because Americans can’t get away from work. According to a survey from Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), in 2018 44 percent of U.S. employers offer their workers paid time off to vote — and that’s an all-time high.”

To learn more about this trend, and as part of my research of B Corporations, I spoke with Holly Gordon, the Chief Impact Officer of Participant, a media and film company founded by Jeff Skoll that, among other films, has produced “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore, “Spotlight,” “Roma,” and recently “John Lewis: Good Trouble.” Participant is a Certified B Corp, meaning the company has met third-party verified standards of positive social and environmental impact, and is a Time to Vote member, which means the company provides allowances for employees to vote. 

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Against the backdrop of rising voter suppression, increased partisan gerrymandering, and decreased voter turnout across the country, Participant has produced content and impact campaigns designed to deepen understanding of different forms of civic engagement, leverage storytelling to support grassroots activists’ reach and impact, and ultimately seed critical conversations that inspire turnout and make it easier to vote.

For instance, donations made through the Make Good Trouble campaign website helped send more than 53,000 registration forms to eligible voters throughout the country. Participant’s Slay The Dragon campaignefforts in Michigan resulted in 120 applications submitted to the state’s independent redistricting commission for only 13 open positions. And in the past two weeks, nearly 10,000 potential voters have requested a mail-in ballot through their voter hub website.

I wanted to learn more about how the company uses its films and business practices to encourage civic engagement as we near Election Day.  Below are excerpts from my conversation with Gordon. 

Christopher Marquis: Tell me about the ethos of Participant. Why is highlighting stories of social change important to the company?

Holly Gordon: It might look like magic that we happened to have several films that really speak to the importance of civic participation in, arguably, the most important election of our lives. But it's not magic. It's actually part of the DNA of Participant. Jeff Skoll, the founder, saw the kind of impact storytelling had on him as a young man and thought that if you could trust great artists to tell stories in movies that can reach the whole world, you could advance social progress. Artists so often sense early on what is not right, not just in the world and are able to inspire people to get involved, and it all starts with storytelling. Some examples of Participant films that use great storytelling to drive change include “Food, Inc.,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” and “Roma.’” 

And connecting the stories to activists in the field is also really important. My background is as a journalist, actually. And I was a cofounder of a big campaign called Girl Rising that used a film to drive impact around girls' education. The insight was that all these nonprofit organizations on the frontline had a lot of restrictions on how they could market themselves and share their beliefs. And storytelling always was one way they could market themselves. 

That's really the principle behind Participant. We create these big, visible movies, and we try to connect them with organizations to tell their stories in such galvanizing ways. And because we trust world-class artists to be the storytellers, the films we release are often uncannily tied to the zeitgeist moments that we are in. This year, our films are all about civic participation. It’s amazing, really.

Marquis: Why do you think brand activism is important, and how can brands get better at advocating for causes?

Gordon: To quote John Lewis, I think brands should be making good trouble. Brands help us imagine what's possible. They help us imagine the culture that we want. And actually, brands are but an expression of companies, and corporations are communities of people. They are institutions themselves.

More corporations are understanding that what you stand for is beyond the widget you make. What you stand for is an expression of how you treat your employees, what kind of benefits and pay levels you offer, and also how you engage with your community. You have to be about more than just profits. People and planet matter to the long-term health of a company, and, in an existential way, to the long-term health of our world.

So given the amount of access to consumer eyeballs that brands have, the more brands can partner with artists and activists who are trying to imagine a more sustainable world of peace and prosperity for all, the more they can help to carry some of that work forward. 

Now, we can't let governments off the hook. We can't let individuals off the hook. We all have agency. We have the ability to make change. But I'm so encouraged by this awakening that I'm seeing in the business community around understanding stakeholder governance versus shareholder primacy, and the balancing of profit with people and planet. It's a huge opportunity for the kind of transformation that we need in the world.

We've actually been really working internally on figuring out how to be more strategic with our work. Setting a long-term vision, especially given COVID and what I see as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to realign around purpose, values, and civic participation.

And what we're seeing is that there are three areas of potential for change that would really start to meet the needs of the world, one around protecting the planet, another around designing for equity, and a third around transforming our institutions. Those are long-term communities of impact that we're looking to potentially serve with our content. But in the short term, what does that mean for what's happening today and how do we galvanize participation around an animating idea that exists in multiple projects across time? And the animating idea for this year is, clearly, that civic participation matters.

Marquis: What is Participant doing to support its employees when it comes to voting this year?

Gordon: We've been supporting a whole bunch of commitments. We've made corporate commitments around voting this year. We were a big part of National Voter Registration Day and Vote Early Day. We are signed on to Time to Vote, which means that all of our employees will get time to vote early, to vote on Election Day, and/or to volunteer at the polls. We’ve also launched our own Participants Vote campaign to encourage civic engagement.

And we're part of a Hollywood alliance called the CAA Civic Alliance, which is a group of organizations that have been focused on voting and civic engagement. We have a bunch of people on the team, who have taken days off to make calls encouraging people to vote. We have a lot of folks across the company who are doing stuff on their own, but also the company is supporting all of us having time to volunteer and go vote. 

Marquis: Tell me about the role of being a B Corp in supporting Participant’s endeavors. 

Gordon: An authentically-grounded mission around impact has always been at the center of our DNA. Becoming a B Corp was tough, as it should be, because the B Impact Assessment is very in-depth. But I can't stress enough how important those kinds of policy frameworks are, if we're trying to make this kind of change. You need leadership. You need a shared belief. And then you actually need a tool to help you do it and policies that can stand up to it. So that’s why we became a B Corp.


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