Demand by consumers, employees and even investors for companies to demonstrate social responsibility runs very high these days, but that does not mean that it is easy for businesses to operate effectively at the intersection of commerce and cause.
TOMS’ Chief Strategy & Impact Officer Amy Smith is intimately familiar with the challenges of running an enterprise to do well by doing good from her four-and-a-half-year tenure at the Los Angeles-based TOMS and 11 years prior working with numerous corporate partners at the Points of Light foundation.
I’ve been an active follower of TOMS since it launched in 2006 featuring it, for example, as a case study in the book “Good Works!” and honoring the company with Engage for Good’s Golden Halo Award for Business in 2014, a high water mark in its history. Built and celebrated for so long around the concept of donating shoes to a person in need for every pair sold, TOMS moved away from that giving model in 2019 and, in the face of financial difficulties, was taken over by its creditors this year.
I reached out to Amy recently for her take on purpose-centric business management during the pandemic, an update on TOMS and some advice for folks seeking to inject more social purpose into their companies.
Our troubled world is always in need of help in the form of corporate social impact, but this year in the US we face huge additional challenges stemming from the pandemic, US political instability and the racial justice crisis. I’m sure your “to do” list is a mile long on a regular day. How have you dealt with all these additional needs in light of the economic impact the pandemic has had?
Amy Smith: While my job at TOMS is centered around impact, this year has been a uniquely challenging one, there is no doubt about that. At TOMS we’ve had to make a lot of pivots in our plans to adapt to the needs of these unprecedented times. Last year, TOMS made the bold decision to decouple our impact from our original One for One model so we could be more nimble, meeting the needs of a new reality. Now for every $3 we make, we give $1 away, both in the form of shoes and impact grants. Little did we know that 2020 was going to put our new model to the test in a big way. But our model performed, allowing us to direct resources where they were most urgently needed, like the frontlines of the global health crisis, as well as the frontlines of the movement for racial justice.
In response to the worldwide health crisis, we developed the TOMS Covid-19 Global Giving Fund. Over the course of 5 months, we directed ⅓ of our net profits to organizations combating Covid-19. Thanks to our awesome customers, the Global Giving Fund generated $2 Million. Those funds are being distributed to Giving Partners that are directly responding to Covid-19—both at home and abroad— through mental health support, hand washing and medical supplies in under-resourced communities.
As you mentioned, we were faced with several other pressing issues in 2020. We are constantly listening to our customers, Giving Partners, and employees in order to address issues where we can support and provide meaningful impact. We are currently in the process of distributing $100,000 to organizations that are working to create racial justice and equity. This started with a $5,000 donation to Black Lives Matter and will continue to support longtime Giving Partners that are experts in this space.
Finally, it was more important than even to engage voters for the November 2020 election. We partnered with Vote.org to encourage people to use their voice. We offered a suite of tools on the TOMS website encouraging visitors to register to vote, check their registration status, request an absentee ballot, see each state’s specific mail in deadlines and sign up for election reminders. We are proud to see a record number of voters turn out in this election!
It’s election time. We’ve partnered with @votedotorg to make sure you’re #VoteReady with tools to check your registration status, register, and vote by mail. // Get #VoteReady now: https://t.co/FewozJUX3t pic.twitter.com/qW0IZ8rzwU
— TOMS (@TOMS) September 9, 2020
Across all issues, we feel it is very important to listen to our partners and understand how our support can best help with what is most needed in the communities they serve. This obviously added to the work we do as a company, but we felt it was essential to take a stand on these issues in such a trying year for everyone.
TOMS has undergone dramatic changes in its ownership and giving model in the last year and you were elevated from chief giving officer to chief strategy & impact officer in April. How do you describe the company’s current approach and how your role has expanded?
Amy Smith: The past few years have been full of many new and exciting changes for TOMS. Last year we signed an agreement that transfers the ownership of TOMS to a group of investors led by Jefferies, Nexus, and Brookfield. Together we are committed to the brand and our mission of using business to improve lives.
Another big change, as outlined above, was that we made the decision to expand our giving model to include impact grants. This provides a more flexible method of giving and allows us to create the most meaningful impact with a focus on mental health, ending gun violence and creating access to opportunities for under resourced communities.
Since I joined TOMS nearly five years ago, I have been responsible for overseeing all aspects of TOMS Giving —including setting impact strategy, managing relationships with our over 80 global Giving Partners, measuring impact across our social and environmental sustainability efforts, and creating ‘on the ground’ giving experiences for our employees to engage in our giving first hand. My role has expanded to also oversee corporate strategy. Giving is built into TOMS’ DNA. It’s at the center of everything we do. So we understand that by bringing these two critical functions together under one leader, we are able to more holistically build our business and impact strategy since one cannot happen without the other. Through lots of research and planning across the organization, in all functions, we have developed a three-year strategy plan that kicks off in January of 2021. We’ve got a lot of exciting work ahead.
I imagine you are approached frequently by people seeking to inject a sense of social purpose into their companies. What is some of the advice that you commonly share?
Amy Smith: More and more companies are starting with social purpose in mind. I think that’s the best, easiest, most authentic way to give, but you have to be committed. It’s harder for existing companies with shareholder expectations, but not impossible. I’m thrilled to have seen in the last several months brands that were not traditionally purpose-driven addressing current events. Improving lives and creating more equity in the world is going to take all of us. When times get tough or sales are not what you expect them to be, it is logical and reasonable that you would consider scaling back or cutting your original commitment to giving. But that is a slippery slope. You have to stay committed to your pledge. At TOMS, giving is built into our DNA, it’s at the center of everything we do and we have learned a lot about giving over the past 14 years.
That being said, it’s still possible to commit to social purpose in small ways, even if it’s not a core part of your company. Like I said – it’s going to take all of us so get creative and start small if you need to. One way to incorporate giving into your company is to offer resources or volunteer opportunities to your employees. This allows your workforce to get involved either during working hours or on their own time. Not only does it benefit the community but it also creates an opportunity to build a positive work culture and bring employees closer to the importance of giving.
Originally published on Forbes.com