TAKEAWAY: An emerging coalition of companies is stepping up to improve society and overcome polarization by strengthening the core of representative democracy: the right to vote and to have that vote count.
The Dialogue Project seeks to answer an essential question: How can companies help improve civil discourse and bridge the divide in American society? In 2020, a group of businesses are answering the call by helping all Americans take action for change through the processes of representative democracy.
Their actions are expanding the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which holds that businesses should work to benefit their communities and sustain a healthy society. These efforts typically focus on “ESG”—the Environment, Social change, and corporate Governance. Few companies have viewed the state of national governance as a duty of CSR. However, just as the natural world is under threat, our civic world is as well, and business has a responsibility to respond.
To that end, a coalition called Business for America is working to integrate the concept of Civic Responsibility into CSR. Founded by former Apple executive Sarah Bonk, Business for America works to mobilize the business community to empower citizens and improve the functioning of representative democracy. Says Bonk, “Ask anyone whether they think the current level of polarization is sustainable and most will say it is not. A business that takes social responsibility seriously must also be concerned about the health of democracy, where the current gridlock and lack of progress harms everyone. There hasn’t been adequate involvement from the business sector in this arena. That’s what led to Business for America.”
Business for America stresses that its approach to civic engagement is different from traditional corporate lobbying. Instead of focusing on a company’s immediate interests, Business for America thinks more broadly, knowing that a government perceived by citizens as not representative will ultimately jeopardize all institutions, including business itself.
Businesses can take action by giving employees time off to vote, encouraging civic volunteerism, and supporting commonsense reforms to increase voter turnout, preserve election integrity, and incentivize bipartisanship.
Bonk notes that demonstrating Corporate Civic Responsibility need not be expensive or complex. “Businesses can take action by giving employees time off to vote, encouraging civic volunteerism, and supporting commonsense reforms to increase voter turnout, preserve election integrity, and incentivize bipartisanship.”
Today, Business for America offers these initiatives to mobilize companies:
Business for America is recruiting companies to join Time to Vote, established in 2018 by Patagonia, Levi Strauss and PayPal. Here, companies commit to give employees paid time off to vote, removing a serious disincentive for voting, especially among hourly paid workers.
COVID-19 is threatening to dampen turnout for the 2020 election. In partnership with state and local officials, Business for America is mobilizing a network of civic-minded businesses to support election administrators nationwide. The goals are to make certain that no one risks their safety to vote and that every vote cast is accurately counted.
Companies are invited to provide assistance tailored to local election administrators’ needs. This includes aid in enlisting election workers, preparing polling places, donating personal protective equipment, providing technical assistance, and supporting voter education.
Business for America is unique in its mobilization of civic-minded companies to use their business voice to advocate for policy changes to strengthen democracy. In mid-2020, Congress considered federal supplements to state and local budgets to provide aid and equipment to protect the health of poll workers and voters, including the use of vote-by-mail. Business for America spearheaded a business letter to Congress that was signed by more than 200 companies as well as by 18 regional associations representing thousands more businesses. The letter was submitted to the Senate Rules Committee hearing on election preparations, and business leaders expressed their concerns directly in meetings with senators.
While corporate advocacy is nothing new, this effort represents the single largest political initiative to date from the business community on behalf of voters and election integrity. In 2021, Business for America will build on this success by continuing to help companies use their voices to reduce political polarization and strengthen democracy.
In the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, many companies wish to help advance civil rights by supporting equal voting rights. Business For America is working with companies to identify ways to ensure all voters have a voice in 2020 and beyond. Businesses that serve the general public, such as retail shops and restaurants, are empowering their employees to encourage customers to register and vote, and to provide information about voting deadlines and overall voting rights. Other businesses are building alliances with community organizations to amplify local get-out-the-vote efforts.
Business for America is dedicated to the concept that businesses of all sizes have a role in helping to overcome the political dysfunctions that are corroding general faith in our nation’s democratic beliefs and institutions. By expanding the definition of CSR to integrate Civic Responsibility, businesses can take action to strengthen democracy while staying out of left-right politics. Businesses can do much more, together, to help all their stakeholders engage as citizens in a nation founded on the radical concept of participatory democracy. This will be good for business, but vastly more important, it will be great for our nation, in this year’s election and for those to come.