Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Harriet Gardner headshot

Companies Can Advance Social Justice and Do Good Business: Here’s How

By Harriet Gardner
black lives matter demonstration social justice

Demonstrators gather for a Black Lives Matter rally in the summer of 2020. (Image credit: Ying Ge/Unsplash)

Only a few years ago, companies and organizations were scrambling to build diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programming, hiring new staff and implementing programs. Fast-forward to 2024 and many of these same companies are pulling their efforts back publicly. Some because of increased attacks by politicians and the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action, some because they believe this is a cost center that can be cut. 

Yet the work is as important as ever. As leaders, we must continue to invest in DEI and social impact efforts and reaffirm that it not only is legally sound to do so, but also imperative to combat misinformation. In fact, employees and customers expect brands to make meaningful investments in advancing social justice. 

Put simply, now is not the time for companies to back down, but rather stand out by strengthening their commitment to social justice and by leveraging their time, money and influence. This may not be easy to do, but these strategies can move us forward, increase employee and customer engagement, and strengthen business practices. 

Connect social impact work to core business efforts

Social impact work should not stand alone. It must be integrated into every aspect of a company’s core business. This way it is not seen as an “add-on,” but instead is a key piece of success.

For example, Google.org launched its Cybersecurity Clinics Fund in 2023 to support colleges and universities by increasing access and opportunities for hands-on, real-world training for students interested in pursuing careers in cybersecurity. Through this opportunity, Google is not only providing support through grantmaking, but it is also offering free access codes to its Google Cybersecurity Certificate courses, in-kind products, and mentorship from Google employees. This commitment addresses a need to invest in the future cybersecurity workforce and offer affordable cybersecurity services to under-resourced community organizations, while also aligning with Google’s business and technical strengths.

By closely connecting social impact strategies to their business, companies create a business case where sustained philanthropic support makes operational sense since, in addition to funding, for-profit companies may have products and expertise to directly support social impact projects.

Engage employees and customers

Social impact programs are a critical component of attracting and retaining top talent. These programs reflect the values of the company and of many of its employees. A recent poll by Benevity found that 80 percent of U.S. employees believe "it is the responsibility of company leaders to take action in addressing racial justice and equity issues.” 

In this area, Sephora models what a consistent, cross-organizational commitment to progress on racial equity can look like. The beauty retailer took the 15 Percent Pledge to ensure at least 15 percent of the products on its shelves come from Black-owned brands — a move that doubled the number of Black-owned brands available at Sephora stores.

Meanwhile, the company has been building a diverse workforce that more accurately reflects its diverse consumers. Black leadership increased by 7 percent across Sephora since 2021, while Latinx leadership grew by 10 percent, according to its latest DEI report. The company also says it trains store employees to better serve diverse clients and their beauty needs.

Invest in community-led organizations

Investing in organizations with proximate leaders — that is, leaders who share the identity, lived experience, and/or geography of the community they serve — is a highly effective way to drive impact and improve relationships with the communities that a company seeks to support. Communities and their leaders know what they need to thrive, and there is growing evidence that nonprofits led by and for people closest to a community or issue are more innovative and better problem solvers.

However, only 4 percent of U.S. philanthropic dollars go to organizations led by people of color who are most impacted by systemic inequity. For companies, this means that there is an opportunity and an obligation to stand out by supporting under-resourced and highly effective grassroots organizations. Tides' approach to supporting companies with their philanthropic strategy is rooted in the belief that this work must be connected to the lived experience of the communities they seek to benefit, as our partner Kate Spade New York demonstrates with its On Purpose Fund.

Practice trust-based approaches

Trust-based philanthropy addresses inequality by shifting power from donors to those doing the work on the ground. By reducing reporting requirements, giving unrestricted funds, and reducing barriers to resources, companies can alleviate the burden on grantees and community organizations. Simply put, trusting your grantees to deliver impact benefits both organizations and the shared impact that you seek to create.

For example, the software development company Unity engages in trust-based philanthropy by offering grants to projects and organizations that align with its mission of empowering creators. Unity’s grantmaking approach emphasizes collaboration and innovation, supporting initiatives that leverage technology and creativity for social impact. For example, the Unity for Humanity creator program provides mentorship and community to creators using their skills for good. Unity partners closely with Tides by fostering a community-centric model that seeks to build long-term relationships with grantees and that emphasizes mutual trust and flexibility through general operating support grants.

The bottom line: Supporting social justice is good for business

Corporate giving is a powerful way for companies to demonstrate their purpose and commitment to the people who have invested in them: their employees, their customers, and the communities they serve.

By staying the course during these challenging times and supporting diverse communities, companies can join a movement to advance social justice while seeing a real impact on their own business goals. And that's just good business. 

Harriet Gardner headshot

Harriet Gardner is the Senior Director of Corporate & Strategic Initiatives at Tides. For more than 15 years, Harriet has worked in the nonprofit and corporate sectors and the UN system with a focus on building partnerships to advance equity, children's rights, global health, and education. Through strategic partnership and coalition-building, Harriet has spearheaded multimillion-dollar programs that leveraged corporate resources, technical expertise, and influence for disaster response, education, and health initiatives. At Tides – a non-profit philanthropic organization – Harriet leads the Corporate & Strategic Initiatives work, providing grantmaking, philanthropic advisory and strategy consultancy services for more than 70 companies. Prior to working at Tides, she served as VP of corporate partnerships at UNICEF USA, as a senior corporate specialist at Save the Children, and as head of partnerships at Catchafire. She received a B.A. in English language and literature from The University of Manchester.

Read more stories by Harriet Gardner