Salesforce Takes on LGBTQ Rights: Would the World Change if All Companies Got Behind a Social Issue?

What role should businesses play in social change? In political advocacy? Is it okay for corporations to take a public stand, as Salesforce has and does, on issues like equal pay for women or LGBTQ rights? What do these actions signal about the future of CSR and corporate giving? To get some perspective on these questions, we turned to corporate philanthropy pioneer Suzanne DiBianca, who leads philanthropy and stakeholder management at Salesforce. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras sat down with DiBianca recently at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, California.

Michael Zakaras: Suzanne, you created with Marc Benioff the Salesforce Foundation in 2000. Can you give us a sense for where your values and entrepreneurial instincts come from?

Suzanne DiBianca: Well, I was raised by a capitalist and a social worker, and I often think that I ended up in the middle. My dad was a businessman, my mom ran the department of juvenile justice for the state of New Jersey. That meant, among other things, that kids from my mom’s work were often staying at our home. We were living in Princeton in the days of The Preppy Handbook, and these kids didn’t look like anyone in my school or neighborhood. It helped me see from an early age that there was a much bigger world out there and it wasn’t always very kind or fair. Looking back, these were important threads that shaped my direction and contribution.

Zakaras: You were part of a small group that created and began sharing the model of ‘integrated philanthropy’ years ago. What is it and why is it important?

DiBianca: Integrated philanthropy essentially means aligning your community support with your core business and competencies. For companies especially, it’s a recognition that often your technology, your products, and your time are just as valuable as the dollars you can give away. At Salesforce we created and spread the 1-1-1 model, which means we agreed to give away 1 percent of our equity, 1 percent of our time, and 1 percent of our product at minimum. For us, this has amounted to $120 million in grants, 1.4 million employee volunteer hours and technology for 28,000 nonprofits and education institutions.

Zakaras: Is 1 percent enough?

DiBianca: It’s a starting point and something that companies of any size  can easily adopt and build from. And that’s what we’re seeing – beyond our direct giving, we have encouraged the open adoption of the model and its principles through the Pledge 1% program and more than 850 companies are now taking it up.

Zakaras: Beyond corporate giving, Marc Benioff has been quite vocal about certain issues especially in support of the LGBT community. Is he crossing a line that makes some people uncomfortable?

DiBianca: Some people aren’t sure how to react, yes, and think that corporations have no business taking a stand on social issues. But what are companies really other than a collection of people moving something forward? In our case, our people have a set of values they care deeply about, and we have created a workplace environment that encourages them to drive change within the company walls and beyond. What message would we be sending if we encourage this on the one hand but stay in the shadows on the other? Some applications of corporate philanthropy miss this point and it’s an important one.

Zakaras: Do you see any downsides to allowing businesses to have such a big voice or such big leverage in the political sphere? What about certain high-profile cases where for religious or moral reasons companies refuse to serve certain customers?

DiBianca: We consider equality a core value, it’s that simple. And advancing it sometimes means being vocal to protect our employees and pushing back against discriminatory legislation. It’s all part of taking a broader stakeholder perspective and asking what’s right for them.

Zakaras: What’s the next frontier for CSR at Salesforce and what new directions excite you most?

DiBianca: We’re taking values alignment to a new level and integrating our stakeholder commitment into every aspect of our business. I’ve taken on a new role to lead our stakeholder management. This is important. Sustainability, for example, shouldn’t be siloed off in a corner at a .org – it should be integral to the business itself. Philanthropy is one avenue for supporting social change, yes, but so is how we invest, the sustainability of our business practices, our employment practices, and also our advocacy. It’s really about re-thinking what a business can and should be.

(Photo credit: Salesforce)