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The Importance of a Meaningful Social Impact Program

Just a few years ago, social impact work was widely viewed as a “nice to have” for companies. Today, social impact work is increasingly understood to be a “need to have.” As millennial leaders increasingly come into positions of power in business, government, and philanthropy, accountability will be prioritized more than ever, says Emily Kane Miller, founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, Miller Ink’s sister agency. We recently sat down with Emily to discuss how she launched an organization dedicated to helping business leaders and philanthropists make the most of their social impact campaigns.

What was your background before founding Ethos Giving?

I’m a regulatory lawyer by training, and during law school, presumed I’d build a public interest career. My first job was in government. Unfortunately, because we were in the middle of the Great Recession—we were often asking how we could cut funding rather than looking for ways to build innovative community work, which was where I’d hoped to focus.

In 2011, I joined The Wonderful Company’s legal team, and the organization’s burgeoning social impact effort was part of my portfolio. The job that I’d always thought I could do only in the public sector was suddenly unfolding in a corporate setting. My work there evolved significantly. In the decade that followed, I took over the department, managed all philanthropic giving, social impact work, employee volunteerism, and cause marketing efforts. It was a tremendous education in what it means for a business and business leaders to give back.

What was your inspiration for starting Ethos Giving?

The world had changed. When I started in CSR, it was still seen as work that was “nice to have”. By 2019 when I founded Ethos, it had become clear that CSR was shifting to a “need to have.” I recognized that there wasn’t a firm to help create and build out the kind of social impact programs I knew were possible and necessary, particularly in Los Angeles and California more broadly. So, I launched Ethos Giving because I knew there was an opening in the market for a supercharged social impact agency.

How did your time at the Wonderful Company prepare you for social impact work?

The leadership at Wonderful wrote the book on what it means to put attention and value on social impact work. As a result, the world now understands the crucial role that CSR plays in every field and industry. Thanks to Wonderful, I gained a decade of leadership experience running ambitious strategic social impact work.

Based on your experience, what is wrong with philanthropy today? What is effective and ineffective in this space?

There’s an underlying feeling that because social impact work is positive, it is therefore easy. I call this the “happy-face” problem. Like anything, social impact work takes work: amazing results require real effort. And many organizations – even when they’ve identified the desire to move the needle – don’t have the horsepower to run the work well.

Another issue is our country’s tax structure, which allows for write-offs regardless of the quality of work. I’m not saying the government should get involved at a qualitative level – but it does create a gap. When there’s no regulatory bar, this work can get deprioritized, and the results suffer. Someone needs to love the work, bottom line. I see that as the donor’s ultimate responsibility.   

I also believe there are not adequate industry standards. For example, accountants, lawyers, and teachers attend school to learn how to do their jobs well. They’re taught by experts with experience in their fields; they take national tests to certify that they meet the national standard. In social impact, it’s the Wild West. Anyone can say they’re doing CSR or social impact. The lack of standards is a recipe for a wide range of quality.

Ethos Giving is working to prove that even in the midst of this wide-open model, achieving excellence and maximizing value is possible. My long-term goal is to disrupt the field, ultimately creating a standard framework.

How can organizations make a real impact?

The most important element is determining how you, as a business and a leader, are uniquely situated to create value. This is not short-term work. Consider the needs and beliefs of your consumers and employees, or the communities you aim to serve. If you devise a social impact vision that you can’t imagine doing 10 years out, you probably haven’t identified your best work.

Once you know your purpose, take a step back and ask how you can best support the goals related to that effort. The answer might be to increase donations to nonprofits you already support, but it might also be to restructure business practices or utilize your brand’s voice and platform to shift hearts and minds. Depending on what it is, the checks that you cut to a nonprofit might be the least important piece of your social impact agenda.

Another crucial component of making real impact is to objectively measure the work. Whatever the end-goal—do it, track it, and fix it when it’s not working. Just like any other part of your business.

To a lot of people, CSR can be a PR play. How can organizations find a balance between CSR and PR?

I built an organization that partners with corporations to make the world a better place, so I appreciate that corporations need to talk about this work. While I do believe that there needs to be a baseline of altruism, it’s not the exclusive reason companies do good, and it’s okay to be honest about that.

The problem comes in putting the cart before the horse. If you’re creating a PR strategy and communications outreach plan to tout your good work before that good work is solidified, there’s a fundamental issue in priorities. Good work needs to be smart and successfully implemented. Only then should it be a communications asset. Don’t do your end-goal a disservice by pushing communication before there’s real content.

How was Ethos Giving able to help clients and corporations during the pandemic?

My team and I put the mirror on ourselves, asking how we could best be of service in that moment. There were many generous individuals and businesses ready to show up and give back, especially in the beginning when there was a major lack of PPE and data. Our clients wanted to know how they could help, so I made calls to figure out who had the greatest need, which hospitals were lowest on supplies, and where we could deploy capital most impactfully. There wasn’t a one-stop shop for these answers at an institutional level.

With that goal in mind, we developed the Greater Los Angeles Hospital Registry, which allowed hospitals to easily announce a need for PPE, like goggles, masks, or booties. With millions of dollars in donations, we were able to spread the generosity across the county, deploying hundreds of thousands of units of PPE. Overall, the vast majority of COVID treating hospitals didn’t have big development departments or donor bases. We were able to support places like LAC + USC Medical Center, Olive View, Glendale Memorial, and more than 30 additional hospitals. I think this helped many healthcare providers feel less alone during an extremely difficult time.

We knew that wasn’t the end of the story. Hospitals still needed to feel like we had their backs, even once the PPE shortage was resolved. So, we created opportunities for our clients to bring flowers, food, and other gifts to thank and support the staff. That’s the magic of this work—being able to show up and be kind. The fact that Ethos Giving was able to facilitate the flow of generosity from our clients to the people who needed it most was very gratifying.

What are you excited for in the upcoming year?

In the last year, I’ve had the opportunity to think a lot about how technology can play a bigger role in advancing our sector. Ethos Giving is cooking up a new project that we are very excited to unveil at the end of the year.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

Nate and I have two little ones, and they’re a big priority. They’re super fun and help keep us focused on what matters most. In the very narrow time that’s not dedicated to our family and our work, I love walking in pretty places and doing yoga. I’m also a passionate cook.

If you were a punctuation mark, which one would you be and why?

I would be an ellipsis because in my mind, there’s always something more on the horizon. I have a visionary spirit, always interested in keeping ideas open. I often think “dot dot dot” in my head because you never know what’s around the corner.

Is there anything else you want to add regarding your work?

I’m bullish when it comes to social impact. Everybody knows the world needs fixing, but I don’t believe that we can make real progress without corporations stepping up and playing an integral role. If we don’t create onramps for corporations to understand how they can push themselves toward excellence in serving others, then we won’t achieve the value society needs.

Ultimately, we’re moving from a shareholder to stakeholder capitalism model. I want Ethos Giving to be a value-add part of this equation, and am excited to help leaders with big social impact ambitions do good better.   

Emily is the founder and CEO of  Ethos Giving. Ethos Giving is Miller Ink’s sister agency focused on social impact and corporate responsibility.