Why your social impact officer belongs in the C-suite

Twilio's chief social impact officer on the future of giving back in tech.

Erin Reilly is the chief social impact officer at Twilio.

Erin Reilly has created a revenue-driving social impact arm at Twilio.

Photo: Twilio

Just two decades ago, "corporate social impact" mostly looked like an executive choosing a nonprofit to receive an earmarked sum of money, or rallying employees to clean up the side of a highway once a year. But more recently, the focus has shifted and companies are expected to step up in new ways. More workers expect their employers to match their values with concerted action, and tech companies are far from excluded. To fill the gap, more organizations are hiring corporate social responsibility (CSR) leaders and asking them to join the executive team.

Erin Reilly, chief social impact officer at Twilio, has spent the majority of her career focused on using tech companies' assets to do more good in the world. She's not shy to say that from the beginning of her career she's felt the power of capitalism could be used to make the world a better place, and she's leading a wave of social impact officers helping organizations reap the benefits of giving back.

"We are constantly thinking first about impact, and the revenue is the way that we power more of that impact," said Reilly. In a conversation with Protocol, she shared more about how C-suites are evolving to make room for social impact and how the scope of the role has changed.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

If you were to talk at a career day at an elementary school, how would you describe your role?

That's a good question, because I do have young children. The way I describe my role is that I am trying to help people. And, you know, one of the ways that we can do that is through the technology that we use every day. If we can empower that — well I wouldn't use the word "empower" with elementary school students — but you know, if we can basically help the organizations that are out on the front lines helping people every day, whether it's to get a better education, or to get vaccinated, or maybe have more justice in the world and fairness in the world, then if we can give them technology that helps them do that more, then we can help them make the world a better place.

Looking at tech companies specifically, how has CSR and where social impact sits within a company changed?

I really think we are in the third wave of the social impact era. You know the first era was the age of philanthropy where you think of some of the titans of business — Rockefeller, Carnegie — and they made their money oftentimes any way they could. And oftentimes it was having a negative impact on the environment and negative impacts on the people in communities. And then they gave away a portion of that money for good causes in philanthropy, but that really created a disconnect between the purpose of the company and the philanthropy that they did afterwards.

Then I think we moved to the second wave, which is really the age of corporate social responsibility, where companies realize that we need to be operating our business at the same time we are trying to make a positive impact on the world. But oftentimes, companies would make their social impact arms sort of siloed off to the side, because they didn't want to negatively impact the purity of the social good work with the profit generation of the company overall. So that often meant that the social impact arms were under-resourced and were out of alignment with the main purpose and function of a corporation which was to generate profit. And oftentimes CSR departments had to make the business case for resources, which often felt like begging for resources.

So now I think we're in the third era, which is the age of integrated impact where we have created social impact that is part of the core value and function of the company overall and we are not a silo. We are part of the executive team and we are making sure that we are also generating revenue and profit from social impact that then gets reinvested into doing more social impact overall.

How has your role changed since you arrived at Twilio, as well as over the last two years?

I think one of the biggest things that's changed in the past five years in this role is, we've shifted from what was our vision to the practical execution of what it looks like to integrate social impact into everything in the company. I think we always knew that we wanted to do that, but now we know how to do that. I've touched on this a bit, but it's making sure that the organizational alignment is there. So preferably the role reports into the CEO, but also we have the resources to be able to grow the impact that we're making. We've refined that through this sustainable business model where we generate revenue, but also reinvest that into more social impact overall.

And then I would say in the last two years, wow, we have seen a big shift. Even after working in this field for decades, employees and investors, and to some degree consumers, are really taking actions and making decisions more based on whether a company is doing good for the overall set of stakeholders rather than just generating profits. So, the transition from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism. Over the last couple of years I've actually seen employees and investors change decisions based on whether a company is doing something more than generating a profit and taking care of the community overall.

I often say that business is not the savior for all of these challenges, but at the same time we need to be doing our part in business because the government sector and the social impact or nonprofit sector are working on on these global challenges, but then the business sector should be doing as much as we possibly can as well. Over the last two years, all of us have seen those global challenges even more starkly in front of us and so employees and investors and consumers are saying, "step up," as companies in addition to the government and the nonprofit sector do as much as [they] can to solve those areas.

I'd love to talk more about the services Twilio provides for nonprofit organizations and how exactly it provides revenue.

Our team sells Twilio's software and products to social impact organizations at a reduced rate, which then generates revenue that we can use to grow all of our social impact programs. So in addition to providing our technology we also provide grants so that if nonprofits can't afford even our reduced rates there is an opportunity for them to leverage technology overall to do good. And then we also help invest more into helping our employees volunteer, and also provide more training to nonprofits on how to use our technology. And then we invest more in reaching more nonprofits, so that they are aware of how technology can help them accomplish their mission at a greater scale overall.

What's important to mention is that we are generating revenue and profit, but not just for profit's sake. We're doing it so that we can reinvest into creating more impact overall. What we've experienced since we've been doing this is very different from past CSR work that I've done. It no longer feels like we need to beg for resources, because we are self-funded.

What's something that you feel like you and your social impact counterparts are thinking a lot about within the tech industry?

One thing that comes to mind is, right now we've gone through a couple of years of increasing frequency and severity of crises, in a lot of different dimensions of society. And what we are trying to do more and more of is be proactive about addressing crises, rather than feeling as though we are acting in the moment almost reactively to crises.

There's a conversation happening about how we can invest in the major areas that we have seen are common crises now that will generate much greater dividends for reducing the chances or the severity of those crises in the future. Because oftentimes, those funds that we give and the actions that we give reactively don't have as big of an impact as if we are more proactive about investing earlier on to make a change. So I think something we're talking about is more proactive crisis planning.

What does social impact within a company look like ten years from now?

I think in ten years, social impact and profitability will go hand in hand. At the same time, I think companies will be investing more in social impact than they are these days, because they will see the opportunity to make revenue and profit, but also to help their employees feel proud and build their brand while making the world a better place.

I also think it will be more intertwined in the company and all of the decisions we make, because I think there's an important element of having a chief social impact officer that reports to the CEO. [CSR leaders] make sure that all of the business decisions that the company is making have a social impact lens — because I think another problem in the past was that you had a really great social impact arm doing some really wonderful things, but if it was dissociated from the main part of the business there may have been unintended negative consequences from the overall drive of the business.

For someone who's looking to build their own social impact team in an up-and-coming tech company, what should be their three priorities when they're building that team?

The first is: Organizational structure matters. I encourage companies that are starting social impact arms to make sure they are part of the core company and reporting into the core purpose of the company, ideally, the CEO. But if that's not what they plan to do then make sure it's in the core purpose of the company. If the company is sales driven, perhaps have the organization reporting to sales. If the company is product driven, perhaps have them report into product. That's the mechanism that really ensures that social impact is woven into the core purpose of the company rather than as a silo.

The second is to reorient your perspective around revenue and social impact: Try and figure out how you can make revenue while also making the world a better place. And then the third step is reinvesting that profit and revenue into creating more impact. And I'll give you a bonus, which is: Ensure that you have the right impact metrics, because a social impact arm that is only generating revenue, but isn't actually delivering the results on social impact, is failing. So you need to be really clear about the impact metrics and keep yourself accountable to those.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Twilio. This story was updated on Sept. 9, 2021.

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