Interviews

Kevin Martinez, VP, Corporate Citizenship, ESPN

Kevin Martinez is far from retiring, but in the last year he’s reaped the kind of accolades usually reserved for people at the end of their careers including The Trailblazer Award from the Association of Corporate Contribution Professionals and PR Daily’s CSR Professional of The Year Award.

A look at his impressive bio leaves no doubt that the honors are well deserved.

“The Role of CSR: Going From Peripheral To Central” is the theme of the talk Martinez will share with corporate social impact professionals on November 19 at a virtual workshop called “Business On Purpose.”

In anticipation of that event, I posed a few questions to Martinez about the state of CSR.

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, U.S. 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? 

Kevin Martinez: Well, I’m sure the one word we have all used recently is “pivot.” The direction of our strategy has not changed but the market pressures and instability in our society have demanded a more connected approach to create change and outcomes. As you can imagine, as the business is affected, so are corporate giving budgets. We have less flexibility moving forward to fund nonprofit galas and programs outside of our priorities, but one of our most powerful resources at ESPN is the ability to share impactful, inspiring stories with millions of people across the globe. In a world where “content is king,” casting light on social issues and providing in-kind value to our nonprofit partners via storytelling is a unique way ESPN gives back.

ESPN’s president Jimmy Pitaro, announced recently that ESPN would double down on making change through our Access to Sports and Empowerment Through Sports grants and 60% will be directed to help Black and African American communities. Our strategy has been working, particularly with helping more kids access sports, as seen in our recent Don’t Retire Kid campaign with the Aspen Institute. Now our efforts will prioritize the use of empowerment through sports grants, so that Black and African American youth have a level playing field to use sports to help them create the futures they imagine.

Since we first met nearly 20 years ago, you’ve done fascinating work for Eddie Bauer, Starbucks, The Home Depot, KPMG and ESPN. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in role of CSR professionals within major corporations? 

Kevin Martinez: I think the most transformational change is the practice itself. CSR (sustainability, citizenship, social purpose) is becoming an institutional integrated resource for the most successful companies. CSR is no longer a “nice to do” and you can’t treat it as a one-off. Also, the generational shift happening with the employee base is very real — younger workers are demanding their companies be more than profit focused. And stockholders are now more educated than ever on the synergy and influence that CSR has on brand reputation, business continuity and innovation – especially as they see through the lens of crisis, social justice and the pandemic.

We don’t know if this is the new norm but we do know that crisis and pandemics will likely happen again and social injustice has been with us for 400 years. The pandemic and social injustice have only amplified this shift to integrated CSR. Corporate leaders are now demanding a more proactive use of CSR assets including corporate giving, corporate foundations, volunteerism, DE&I, sustainability, cause marketing, and public affairs to achieve more holistic strategies and shared purpose. I always tell people, “The business of CSR is the business, and its purpose is to do no harm and build stronger, inclusive and equitable communities.” We have a ways to go, but CSR leaders are learning to speak the language of the business and play a critical, integrated role to achieve companies’ goals.    

You’ll be speaking at Business On Purpose about the importance of moving corporate citizenship from “nice to do” status to a role of core importance within businesses.  What strategies are central to accomplishing that? 

Kevin Martinez: First, I have found that no matter how strong the business or brand is, CSR is only successful if supported from the top and owned and activated by mid-level managers. The two are not mutually exclusive but to be sure, leadership drives the narrative and managers execute.

That’s where CSR teams come into play. The leader needs to enable the CSR team to lead, mentor and look for innovation. And I don’t mean when CEOs say that “CSR is part of our DNA.” That’s an overused allegory. It’s just not true – it’s hard work and it doesn’t come without it. Unfortunately, CSR is trickle-down based on leadership’s penchant for prosocial investments and employee enablement. It doesn’t just happen — it needs to be nurtured, supported and held accountable. Second, we need to build strategies and programs that don’t need to be translated by the business units. Ownership needs to live in the business unit. The CSR team should be consultants and bring unique resources (corporate giving, cause marketing, social partnerships, not always charitable) to the table so that both CSR and business units’ goals can be achieved.

You talk about adopting a philosophy of “progress, not perfection.”  What do you mean by that?

Kevin Martinez: This is a simple one. There is no perfect solution to any problem. We need to understand that there are multiple ways to achieve goals. And I assure you, the minute you reach your goals, a new one is set. We need to make sure our leaders and CSR practitioners understand if you’re striving for perfection, it is likely not creating innovation. Getting “buy- in” is way more important. Responding to social injustice is an example. There is no doubt in my mind that mistakes will continually be made on the road to social equity and justice. A perfect state does not exist. Forward momentum and transparency to the people you serve are the keys.

Originally published on Forbes.com

Phillip Malone

Phillip started his career as a freelance journalist who wanted to change the way traditional news reporting work. His venture, Feed Voice, is a move to introduce to the readers a fresh new wave of news reporting. As a learned founder of the news platform, he renders his genius news pieces based on Automobile niche.
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