Workplace

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.

Climate

New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Entertainment

Watch 'Stranger Things,' play Neon White and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Here are our picks for your long weekend.

Image: Annapurna Interactive; Wizard of the Coast; Netflix

Kick off your long weekend with an extra-long two-part “Stranger Things” finale; a deep dive into the deckbuilding games like Magic: The Gathering; and Neon White, which mashes up several genres, including a dating sim.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt

Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Fintech

Debt fueled crypto mining’s boom — and now, its bust

Leverage helped mining operations expand as they borrowed against their hardware or the crypto it generated.

Dropping crypto prices have upended the economics of mining.

Photo: Lars Hagberg/AFP via Getty Images

As bitcoin boomed, crypto mining seemed almost like printing money. But in reality, miners have always had to juggle the cost of hardware, electricity and operations against the tokens their work yielded. Often miners held onto their crypto, betting it would appreciate, or borrowed against it to buy more mining rigs. Now all those bills are coming due: The industry has accumulated as much as $4 billion in debt, according to some estimates.

The crypto boom encouraged excess. “The approach was get rich quick, build it big, build it fast, use leverage. Do it now,” said Andrew Webber, founder and CEO at crypto mining service provider Digital Power Optimization.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Policy

How lax social media policies help fuel a prescription drug boom

Prescription drug ads are all over TikTok, Facebook and Instagram. As the potential harms become clear, why haven’t the companies updated their advertising policies?

Even as providers like Cerebral draw federal attention, Meta’s and TikTok’s advertising policies still allow telehealth providers to turbocharge their marketing efforts.

Illustration: Overearth/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In the United States, prescription drug advertisements are as commonplace as drive-thru lanes and Pete Davidson relationship updates. We’re told every day — often multiple times a day — to ask our doctor if some new medication is right for us. Saturday Night Live has for decades parodied the breathless parade of side effect warnings tacked onto drug commercials. Here in New York, even our subway swipes are subsidized by advertisements that deliver the good news: We can last longer in bed and keep our hair, if only we turn to the latest VC-backed telehealth service.

The U.S. is almost alone in embracing direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertisements. Nations as disparate as Saudi Arabia, France and China all find common ground in banning such ads. In fact, of all developed nations, only New Zealand joins the U.S. in giving pharmaceutical companies a direct line to consumers.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins