Recently, I was on a call with several other trade association leaders and the chief marketing officer of one of the world’s largest advertisers. Together, we represented companies that account for close to $300 billion in advertising and marketing spending annually in the United States. We’d gathered to talk about some technical issues involving the television industry.
But the CMO hijacked our business meeting. “The only thing I want to talk about,” he said, “is how we stop racism in the United States.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, that same conversation is taking place on city and suburban streets and across social media platforms around the world. But to a degree I have not seen in my 42 years in business, it is also taking place inside companies. Small Mom-and-Pops and giant conglomerates alike, in Board rooms and in team rooms, are actively putting onto their leadership agendas the single most critical question the United States has faced since our founding debates in Philadelphia 244 years ago: How can we fully, economically, politically, culturally, and socially enfranchise black Americans – and build an America that reflects our ideals?
But we are stumbling over what we can do about it. The conversation, far more frequently than not, reverts to earnest debate over how to ramp up the company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. These are vitally important activities, but these are an incomplete and a long-term response to what is fundamentally a burning platform – a burning political platform.
For the issues animating the #BlackLivesMatter campaign are immediate, and they are political: Ending the murder of black Americans at the hands of errant police and armed white citizens; stopping the militarization of the law enforcement officers that contributes to minority disaffection; halting the officially sanctioned demonization and discrimination against black, Muslim, Latino, and other minority citizens and immigrants; stopping state and Federal Government suppression of voting rights; building robust voter participation; ending the Federal Government’s threat to deploy military troops against American citizens exercising their constitutional right to protest; and stopping unconstitutional Government intimidation and suppression of the free press.
We believe there is an immediate action all companies can take–and a few of us already have taken it. It is simple, involves no significant organizational rejiggering, requires no major cash outlays, and will have immediate, beneficial impact inside the four walls of the enterprise, the communities in which the company operates, and across America.
Give your entire team paid time off for civic engagement–formal, continuing, scheduled, compensated PTO, to invest in a social, local, or (if your company can legally allow it) political cause of their choice.
That’s it. Voter registration drives, soup kitchens, charitable fund-raising, candidate phone banks, senior citizens centers, church youth groups, PTA bake sales, animal shelters, #BlackLivesMatters campaigning, #MeToo education–all can qualify. So can thousands of other causes, from the hyperlocal (organizing to get a traffic light installed at a dangerous suburban intersection) to the supra-global (mobilizing to reduce the total corporate carbon footprint).
We call this Change Equity.
Change Equity is sort of a matching 401K program for people’s time. It’s different than the sanctioned efforts in which many companies typically engage–those philanthropies officially blessed by the powers-that-be, that annual day when the sales team dresses in overalls and paints a school. Those are great and must continue. And a company can certainly promote a specific set of interests or offer staff a road map to certain causes.
But like a 401K program, Change Equity assumes that adults have the ability and wisdom to know how and where to invest their time, based on their own experiences, interests, and passions.
Like other forms of investment, the returns on corporate Change Equity programs can be enormous and scalable. In our little non-profit of about 70 people, beginning in June we offered all staff two days of PTO per month through November to work on any cause of their choosing. That’s 840 days of people-power unleashed into the marketplace for political or social change–or the equivalent of three full-time employees working full time for a year (figuring 261 working days a year). That’s larger than our in-house legal team.
If we could get 100 middle-market companies of 1,000 employees each to join the movement, from now through November alone they would collectively be investing 600,000 days of change equity in social and political transformation. That’s the equivalent of a 2,300-person company working a full year on improving the world … and its parts.
There are obvious questions about how a company might manage and monitor a Change Equity program. Different businesses will develop different solutions. We have told our staff that they do not have to seek approval for specific initiatives–we trust their judgement and trust they will use their PTO for social change.
If a company sees Change Equity not as ancillary to the company’s business, but central to the enterprise–a core component of what we do, as important as the widgets we make and the doodads we sell–it can improve team cohesion, and corporate culture.
In the Interactive Advertising Bureau, we are making our Diversity & Inclusion Council the communications center for our Change Equity investments. In a sharp change from past operations, attendance at our D&I Council Meetings now will be mandatory, and central to those meetings will be voluntary report-backs on how people are investing their time. We want people to understand their colleagues as human beings, with passions and commitments outside the workplace–and we want them to learn from each other’s dedication and successes.
We also want them to understand that changing the world for the better is IAB’s business.
We are not alone in this endeavor. J.T. Batson is the founder and CEO of Hudson MX, an advertising technology business providing media buying and media accounting solutions globally through a cloud-based SaaS platform. He is also the Augusta, Georgia-raised son of two civil rights lawyers, who in the wake of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in his home state and George Floyd in Minnesota, realized that he could no longer subdivide his professional, company-leader self from his socially-committed self.
“It hit me hard,” he told his staff last week. “The specific killings of Ahmaud and George were despicable, and I have mourned for their families. The hurt is deeper though—for the tens of millions of black Americans for whom their country, which I love and believe in so very much, has not lived up to its ideal. The scale is overwhelming. For those of you interested in what I’m doing personally, I’m happy to speak with you anytime—but today I’m speaking to you as your CEO. I’m here to talk about what Hudson MX will be doing. Re-affirming that black lives matter. And that we commit our company—and I commit to you as your CEO—to live up to our responsibility to create an environment where that fact is known, felt, and embraced.”
He gave his team PTO specifically for “civic engagement.”
“I have no doubt that you will all come up with ways to make a difference,” J.T. told his staff.
We hope other companies—hundreds of other companies, of any size—will join Hudson MX and the IAB in the Change Equity Movement. Unleash your people, their judgement, their passions, and their time. There are no quick, simple, or singular solutions, for racial equity, but a “PTO for civic engagement” policy is a good, individual step that can be part of a broader initiative to support social/racial justice.
You may actually help stop racism in the United States. You certainly will contribute to changing the world for the better.