Slacktivism isn’t working. Tech leaders should focus on outcomes

July 1, 2022, 11:26 AM UTC
California's YIMBY movement, supported by tech leaders, has helped pass 12 bills in the California Legislature to legalize missing middle housing.
David Paul Morris—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you use Twitter, you know that when a social movement erupts–#BLM, #StandwithUkraine, #RoevWade–company leaders and brands respond with their full arsenal of performative corporate social responsibility tactics and carefully crafted values-aligned statements.

As a tech leader, I’ve seen it play out time and time again. All the crisis response steps have become a familiar playbook: Slack channel conversations, followed by urgent phone calls, careful and sensitive deliberation, then coming up with a polished statement for social media. Finally, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. We’ve officially “done our part.” 

But what are we actually accomplishing by endlessly repeating this scenario? The problem with this approach is that it’s just statements without a strategy to back them up with meaningful actions and outcomes. Essentially, all we’re doing is slacktivism.

People are desperate for the kind of leadership they’re not getting from those with political power. Indeed, 60% of respondents to Edelman’s 2022 Trust Barometer expect CEOs to speak publicly about social and political issues they care about. At the same time, trust in governments is plummeting. Less than half of respondents indicated confidence in governments’ ability to get results.

If corporate leaders and, by association, their companies, really want to show up to issues that matter to them and their stakeholders, they need to go beyond statements to focus on action and outcomes. Here’s what that could look like:

Moving beyond performative politics

Most leaders perceive two main options in responding to a social crisis: making a statement and/or making a donation.

The first option is what society has come to expect, and frankly, we’ve made it too easy to get away with doing only this. It’s important for companies to speak out when terrible things happen–but I also worry that we’re caught in a spiral of polarization that has led to a striking uptick in tribalism and growth in partisan companies. This polarization is making it more difficult to solve public problems, so our problems are only getting bigger.

The second option goes a step further: investing in organizations that are actually working to solve problems. There’s a lot of good that can be done this way. For example, when the BLM movement came into the spotlight, Microsoft committed $11 million in donations to advocacy organizations driving civil rights policy.

More importantly, Microsoft didn’t stop at donations. In 2020, Microsoft allocated $50 million over five years to strengthen and expand its existing Justice Reform Initiative. Microsoft now works with a variety of organizations in pursuit of these objectives including efforts to provide alternatives to incarceration, accelerate the adoption of new models of public safety, and expand access to data-driven insights.

Treat this work like you do any other corporate priority

In business we would never issue a press release or approve a budget and then consider the job done. We work really hard to plan projects from start to finish, lead people to do the work, and ensure the outcomes are measured against goals. We need to take the same approach when we help to solve public problems.

We’ve seen this happen with some companies’ responses to climate change. Payment company Stripe launched Frontier, an advanced market commitment to buy $925 million of atmospheric carbon removal over the next eight years. Rather than treating climate change as a communications project or corporate philanthropy, Stripe went all in on its goals, inviting advisors, entrepreneurs, investors, and other major tech organizations to help make it a reality.

Partner with public leaders to solve problems

You don’t have to go down this path alone. There are already communities of tech CEOs who are working together. One of the issues that spurred us into action is California’s housing crisis.

As the tech economy in the state has exploded, regressive housing policies have led to an undersupply of housing, resulting in the highest rate of poverty in the country. Tech leaders didn’t create these policies, but we have the ability to fix them and a social responsibility to help.

That’s one of the reasons we founded California YIMBY, which has helped pass 12 bills in the California Legislature. This team of policy experts and advocates has partnered with the philanthropies of the founders of Asana and Facebook to legalize “missing middle” housing throughout the state and make it much harder for scofflaw cities to deny housing. While we have a long way to go, we are on track to solving the housing crisis and could not have done it without the support of tech leaders.

Tech can’t fix everything. Deep-seated issues such as climate change, gun safety, the housing crisis, and immigration require years of work. But our companies can go so much further than performative statements on social media.

I’m not suggesting tech companies take center stage in solving public problems. Elected leaders and advocates will always be doing the bulk of the work. And while donations can be effective, I’m not talking about simply throwing money at issues or lobbying groups. Rather, I believe we should play a deeper role.

With all the wealth tech leaders have created, they have the power and responsibility to step up, come together, and help solve public problems at scale, using the organizational, technical, and business resources they have developed. And it starts by asking, “What comes after the statements?”

Zack Rosen is the co-founder and CEO of Pantheon, an established leader in the WebOps space, and a passionate proponent of advancing the open web.

Correction: This article has been updated to accurately reflect the details of Microsoft’s justice reform initiative at the request of the company.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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