March 31, 2021 Feature

Corporate Social Responsibility: It Is Time to Get Involved

Megan K. Bannigan

©2021. Published in Landslide, Vol. 13, No. 4, March/April 2021, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

Recent years have shepherded in a new era for brands as consumers—no longer satisfied with simply supporting a corporation’s bottom line—demand more. Many want their brands to be accountable and have a conscience. The phrase “corporate social responsibility,” or CSR for short, as a result, has become a buzzword in brand management. But what does it really mean? The concept is broad and may include a range of initiatives, such as supporting sustainability and the environment, diversity and inclusion, access to education and technology, new mothers, food shortages, community volunteerism, and, of course, more traditional pro bono assistance.

Studies have shown that CSR initiatives increase brand recognition, enhance brand image, and ultimately grow brand value, not to mention foster both employee and personal development. Does that mean CSR is something all brands should be doing and all employees, including attorneys, should be finding ways in which to participate? To answer these questions, we’ve asked four experts involved with CSR in different capacities—an in-house counsel, a nonprofit chief executive officer, a law firm partner, and a law firm associate—to give us their perspectives and offer practical tips for how and why you should get involved.

Nadia Makki is senior counsel at KIND LLC, producer of healthy snacks. She manages KIND’s intellectual property portfolio and supports the marketing, communications, and product development teams.

Tell us about the types of CSR activities that KIND engages in.

I’m lucky to work at a company that has a long history of corporate social responsibility. For instance, back in 2008, before my time at the company, the KIND Movement was introduced with the purpose of furthering the KIND mission to make the world kinder by inspiring kind acts, whether big or small. Part of growing the KIND Movement included our #kindawesome cards program, where we encouraged team members and consumers to give out a #kindawesome card redeemable for a free snack every time they saw an act of kindness in action. The movement inspired thousands of unexpected acts of kindness and is still a foundation principle of the company today.

In 2015, the company established the KIND Foundation to foster kinder and more empathetic communities. The foundation recently established, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Frontline Impact Project, which matches frontline workers with products and services from corporate partners. Another major foundation program has been Empatico, a multiyear, $20 million initiative to connect and broaden the horizons of students around the globe using a free online learning tool.

Other recent company initiatives I have worked on include supporting the KIND Snack and Give Back Project, which includes programs like KIND Equality. Here, we partnered with the Alice Paul Institute and Resistbot to promote ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Many people do not realize that the ERA, proposed in 1972 and providing that “[e]quality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” only ever managed to get the support of 35 of the 38 states needed for ratification and was never passed. Through this partnership, participants can use Resistbot to text “Pass the ERA” to 504099, which will take them to a KIND petition to extend the deadline for ratification (which has long passed) to get this across the finish line. As part of this initiative, KIND also launched a special-edition KIND EQUALITY bar, with 100 percent of the proceeds being donated to the Alice Paul Institute, dedicated to advancing gender equality. Further participation in the petition was encouraged through social media, where sharing the petition resulted in an additional donation to the Alice Paul Institute.

Another facet of the KIND Snack and Give Back Project included this year’s KIND Pride initiative in June. Along with donating 100 percent of the net sales of the special-edition KIND PRIDE bar to the Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization providing shelter and health-care services to homeless LGBTQ+ youths, the team illuminated the NYC skyline with a rainbow light installation in tribute to the LGBTQ community and the 50th anniversary of the historic NYC Pride March. The installation was particularly meaningful given this year’s cancellation of pride events around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic and provided a way to pay tribute to those trailblazers who have fought so hard for equality and justice.

I’m really proud to work with the team that so thoughtfully put together these programs. They really went beyond what a traditional commercial co-venture program might look like by finding creative and effective ways to draw the attention of the KIND consumer to these important charitable causes.

How do these CSR activities impact your work environment?

Because these types of activities are so front and center and prioritized by the company, it really creates the basis for our strong company culture. In addition to these company-wide initiatives led by marketing, which require cross-functional support from legal, finance, and operations, we have several days of service and opportunities for volunteer work. The company also sponsors lunch and learns, where the nonprofits we partner with will come in and teach us about what they are doing—and how their work is really changing someone’s life for the better. Overall, it has created an environment where people really care about the world they live in, and it encourages everyone to think critically about how they can make the world around them a little kinder.

Aside from the employee benefits, do you view these CSR activities as having an impact on the brand?

Absolutely. At the end of the day, we sell snacks—delicious and healthy snacks, but snacks. There are a lot of companies that sell snacks, but the ethos behind our brand, to make the world kinder, is right there in our name. In some ways, the brand serves as a call to action. We are always thinking about how we as KIND team members can go beyond simply selling snacks—whether that’s through consumer education on health and wellness or partnering with nonprofits we feel passionately about—to make sure we are living up to that name on our wrappers. Our CSR activities allow the brand to also be a call to action to our consumers. By bringing kindness to the forefront of a consumer’s mind when they otherwise might be thinking about how badly they need a snack, we ultimately hope the brand emboldens that consumer to do good in their own world.

And, again, I can’t overstate the impact on employee engagement and company culture, which also impacts the brand. Although we’re “simply” in the business of selling snacks, these charitable partnerships make our work so much more meaningful. You see that in the way employees treat each other and work more collaboratively to solve the day-to-day problems that come up. When employees work with and hear from people working at these nonprofits, and they know that their work is contributing even in some small way to these incredible stories, it reframes what “selling snacks” can mean. In selling snacks and building the brand, we see that we are able to do more, year after year, to amplify the voices of these charitable partners and find ways to engage our consumers with these causes.

Do you have any advice for others who are not at companies that have such a well-oiled infrastructure for doing good?

Obviously first and foremost, our jobs are important to us—and for good reason. You need to be able to support yourself (and your families) while at the same time being substantively engaged in what you love. But if you find your substantive work is not providing you with enough meaningful engagement, there are a few steps you can consider.

First, you can look for these opportunities outside of your workplace. There are so many wonderful organizations that provide these opportunities, and they always need volunteers. The internet makes them easy to find these days. And if there is not an obvious volunteer opportunity, take a chance and email an organization’s contact person to see if it’s something you are really interested in and how your skills might contribute to what they are looking for.

Second, you should consider asking your workplace if you can do more good. Come up with a plan to get involved and present it to your teams. You might also consider putting together some bullet points as to why this work will be beneficial. The worst that can happen is they don’t support it, but I have a feeling, especially in today’s environment, we would see some groups readily support building the company culture to include new CSR activities.

Lisa Gurwitch is the president and chief executive officer of Delivering Good, a nonprofit organization that unites retailers, manufacturers, foundations, and individuals to provide people impacted by poverty and tragedy with new merchandise.

Delivering Good is an amazing organization. Tell us more about it.

We have a vision of creating a more equitable world in which children, adults, and families facing economic, medical, social, and environmental challenges have the useful items that they need and value, including clothing, home goods, toys, furniture, shoes, books, and other consumer products, to overcome adversity and help reach their full potential.

Since 1985, we’ve delivered over $2 billion in products to advance this cause. We partner with companies for product donations and have a distribution network of over 800 community partners around the world. This benefits not only the recipients but also the brands that may be looking for ways to clear their warehouses and simply do good. Through these partnerships, we’ve been able to support a vast array of initiatives, including programs to address poverty, foster care, female empowerment, military service, domestic violence, workforce reentry, and disasters. Our new items really make such a difference in the lives of these children and families.

Other than allowing brands to rid themselves of excess inventory, what benefits does engaging in CSR offer?

CSR is just so important—we, of course, think about it here every day. From a personal standpoint, I have always been fascinated by the intersection of philanthropy and commerce. As a former transactional lawyer, I was used to seeing companies focused on the bottom-line financial perspective. But over the last several years, we have seen CSR at the forefront of corporate behavior. These companies—and individuals who work for these companies—are focusing on the positive social impact of engaging in CSR, and it could not be more exciting.

There are so many reasons to engage in CSR. To name just some of them:

First, consumers are demanding that the companies from which they buy products and services have a social impact. The consumers care about it, and there are so many studies and statistics demonstrating that consumers are forcing this change, and the change is impacting the bottom line. It is not optional anymore. It is not a “nice-to-have.” Companies must have CSR in mind in order to keep their customers and attract new ones.

Second, employees want to work for companies that do good. Happier employees lead to more productive employees and higher employee retention rates.

Third, most companies care deeply about the communities in which they operate and want to lift up those communities. They want to have a social impact. They have the resources and desire to do good.

Fourth, there are pure financial benefits to doing good. In addition to keeping your consumers happy, tax deductions are available for financial or in-kind gifts. As I mentioned above, in the case of Delivering Good, the brands that donate products have costs of carrying excess inventory—whether it’s warehouse space or other expenses—that they are able to save. Doing good can translate into savings in many ways.

Fifth, there is a marketing piece. Companies want to be known as good citizens and authentically addressing the issues of our day, whether that is Black Lives Matter, environmental and sustainability issues, or any number of other relevant causes. If the company is engaging in CSR, it should let the world know what it is doing. The world wants to know.

What kind of legal support do you receive at the organization?

We have several lawyers on the board and several executives who went to law school and practiced law, as I did. We have been fortunate to receive pro bono services from a variety of different firms over our history. Some issues that arise include support for our state charitable filings that require a high degree of expertise, international tariffs, and other highly specialized areas.

What advice do you have for lawyers looking to get involved in CSR?

Lawyers have a tremendous range of professional and leadership skills that nonprofits can really benefit from. As busy as everyone is, and I know the pressures firsthand, you can create a tremendous sense of purpose by volunteering whatever time you do have to help advance an organization’s mission. You might pick a large organization or a small startup; either way, there is surely a lot of work that needs to be done, and lawyers can be at the forefront. Lawyers can also share the mission of these organizations with their firms, companies, and clients and encourage all the businesses that they come in contact with to find a purpose that reflects their values.

What message do you have for brands about engaging in CSR?

We work with a lot of different brands and are very focused on helping protect the brands and brand integrity, which are obviously some of a brand’s most important assets. Having a social purpose distinguishes brands from one another. For instance, Bombas, which started as a sock company, has become incredibly popular because it is well known for donating products with every purchase made. This makes its consumers feel good about their purchases.

I like to encourage everyone to seek out a brand’s mission, vision, and values. If you don’t know what they are, ask. Asking these questions causes more people to start thinking about them.

Do you have any advice for brands that are not quite sure what cause to engage in?

Companies are changing. It used to be that philanthropy would be established from the top down: a CEO would have an interest in something that he or she wanted to promote and would do so through the corporation. Companies have become more democratic. Their HR departments and marketing teams develop community initiatives. Some even conduct firm-wide surveys or host focus groups to see what employees and consumers care most about. There also are experts to engage that can help with a corporation’s philanthropic message.

Another great tool is advisory groups, which can tell a brand what issues a certain group of individuals cares about the most. For instance, the most successful cause-marketing campaign we have done to date was a partnership with American Eagle Outfitters in 2019. This campaign was created with the help of American Eagle’s AExME Council, made up of teenage advocates who are most likely to wear the American Eagle brand. The council considered various causes and ultimately decided the campaign should benefit homeless and disadvantaged youth. As a result, the campaign was launched, which included a curated collection in which 100 percent of the proceeds were donated to Delivering Good to be used for this cause, and $1.5 million was raised.

It is easy to get involved and so worthwhile. Everyone should do it.

Alice Kelly is a partner at Ice Miller LLP. She handles all aspects of trademark and copyright law, from clearance and registration to enforcement of those rights through litigation.

As outside counsel to brands, does CSR play an important role in your job?

Very much so. CSR has become an important matter for our brands. Consumers want to know they are buying not only from a trusted brand but also from a responsible brand. CSR is therefore a critical consideration in our clients’ overall branding efforts. CSR is also an important part of our firm’s mission. CSR can take many forms, from social justice to the environment to pro bono. I am thankful our firm is attempting to provide resources in these areas.

Why is CSR important?

From a legal perspective, clients need to be cognizant of the laws surrounding CSR initiatives as well as the need to be CSR-focused. It also makes good business sense for our clients and for the firm. More and more, clients are requiring information regarding CSR efforts in RFPs from their outside vendors, like lawyers. Twenty years ago, it seemed only a handful of folks were doing pro bono work, and now it is exciting to see it be part of the fabric of most firms.

What kinds of pro bono cases have you worked on?

I have provided pro bono services for numerous clients over the years. In addition to our work on the International Trademark Association (INTA) Pro Bono Clearinghouse for trademarks, I have worked on obtaining guardianships for minors, obtaining special immigrant juvenile visas, defending juveniles in our justice system and running my prior firm’s juvenile justice pro bono project, and even defending a dog bite case (we won!).

What are the benefits of pro bono work?

The appreciation from pro bono clients is so uplifting and illuminating. What seems like an easy matter to you can be someone’s whole world. For newer lawyers, it is also an excellent way to get experience. For all lawyers, it is your duty. You are missing out if you don’t give it a try.

Do you have any advice for other lawyers looking to get involved?

There are so many opportunities. I would suggest looking at local resources in your area and see if your firm has options. Attend a clinic with a local legal assistance group if you are concerned about overcommitting. Almost every state allows for limited engagements these days. For example, the Northern District of Illinois Settlement Assistance Program is a limited engagement to represent a pro se party at a settlement conference. I would also direct people to the INTA Pro Bono Clearinghouse (https://www.inta.org/resources/pro-bono-clearinghouse).

Que Mykte Newbill is an associate at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP in New York, where he focuses his practice on white-collar defense and intellectual property.

As an associate at a big law firm, have you been able to engage with CSR activities? If so, have they played any role in your training and development?

Pro bono has played a very important role in my training and development. My first stand-up experience was as a summer associate representing a client in a Supplemental Security Income benefits appeal before an administrative law judge. I interviewed the client. I wrote the brief. And I appeared before the judge. I learned so much during that experience. It also fueled my desire to do more pro bono once I joined the firm. I’ve loved how pro bono is usually very hands-on and that these are important matters that also offer you the opportunity to lead the advocacy and develop winning strategies for your clients.

What kinds of pro bono cases have you worked on?

I’ve been fortunate to work on a range of very interesting and challenging cases, both those that have opened my eyes to so many fantastic and important organizations out there doing good and those that have helped me further my substantive knowledge. My pro bono cases have run the gamut of intellectual property to immigration law to even small claims, and I work with outstanding pro bono organizations on each one. My first pro bono matter dealt with issues related to the Trump travel ban. The litigation is currently ongoing, but we have reunited a large number of families through that effort.

Another interesting matter concerned the killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, where we sought government records concerning whether the U.S. government fulfilled its “duty to warn” him about the possible danger to his life. It involves challenging legal issues but has been rewarding in the sense that we are advocating in the public interest.

On the slightly more corporate side of things, I also work with a leading renowned foundation to advise them on intellectual property matters, including registering and protecting their portfolio of trademarks. My most recent pro bono client is the Black in Fashion Council (BIFC), which was launched to advance diverse talent in the fashion and beauty industry. The founders are truly visionaries in every way. They are a fabulous client advancing so much good; I’m looking forward to watching their growth.

As a law firm associate, this surely means some extra work. Why have you taken on these projects?

Every amount of justice matters. Knowing and realizing that you can make the difference for someone is a feeling that cannot be measured. I’m lucky to work at a firm that is so supportive of pro bono opportunities and gives us the opportunity to make a difference. To boot, my colleagues on these matters have consistently been all-around rock stars.

Keep in mind that these cases also do a lot more than help others and make you feel good. As I already mentioned, they can help expand your substantive knowledge and lawyering skills to new areas. They are also great tools for networking. I’ve met so many people outside of the firm who I never would have had the opportunity to engage with.

And of course, I’m just incredibly proud of the clients I have worked with, all of whom have been incredibly brave in so many ways, whether as social entrepreneurs or as advocates for their families and themselves.

Do you have any advice for others looking to get involved in this type of activity?

Jump in! Whether you are senior or junior, the need especially now is unimaginable. You really are the difference. Don’t let hesitation stop you. Once you’ve started, listen to your clients. Don’t assume you have all the answers. Be prepared to be creative. Many client problems don’t have a cut-and-dried answer or solution—that’s why they are coming to you.

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Megan K. Bannigan is a litigation partner at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, focusing on trademarks, trade dress, copyrights, false advertising, design patents, rights of publicity, licensing, and other contractual disputes.