On Monday, during a period when many of the world’s most successful companies are starting to embrace greater responsibility for people and our planet, the tech company Basecamp took a very different path: It banned the idea of “social good” entirely.
According to an internal message from founders Jason Fried and David Hansson, Basecamp will no longer tolerate any discussion of what they call “societal politics” on the company dime, and it will eliminate any efforts to create value for stakeholders above and beyond the bottom line. The move follows a very similar announcement by Coinbase late last year.
“There’s no pleasing everyone,” Fried wrote, explaining the move. “There are too many unique perspectives, experiences, and individuals.” (His emphasis, not mine.)
Ah, those pesky individuals. Of course, he’s referring to the human beings who work for him—the ones who have built Basecamp into a successful company and made Fried and Hansson into very rich men (a privileged demographic that, not coincidentally, also includes Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong).
There’s a lot to find distasteful about both companies’ decision to disown any responsibility for their own companies’ externalities, or the impact on their own employees of so-called “political” issues such as systemic racism, climate change, and voter suppression. This alone should be disqualifying for a leadership position in the year 2021 (and a growing number of business leaders seem to agree).
In an era where the vast majority of consumers are demanding that companies step up and address critical public issues—and where 9 out of 10 Americans say they’d rather work for a company that shares their values than one that pays better—proactively giving the world a resounding “Nah” is a fatal brand mistake. Last year at Coinbase, the pain was immediate, as hundreds of employees left Armstrong in the dust, some trading a stake in the company’s subsequent IPO in order to maintain the individualism their employer found so inconvenient.
But here’s the thing. If you look closely enough, there’s a nugget of wisdom within Armstrong’s blog post last year: “I don’t think companies can succeed trying to do everything.”
This is correct. The scope of our global and national challenges is immense. Every day brings a new cause for outrage, a new community suffering, and a new cultural flashpoint that demands our attention.
Does that mean companies should just throw up their hands and simply focus on making as much money as possible? Of course not. Businesses are expected to stand for something, but they don’t need to stand for everything.
Pick a lane
The answer is focus. Leaders may feel overwhelmed by a litany of injustices, but the proper way to manage that is to “pick a lane.” If a company’s executives can identify a key issue area where they can bring credibility, then the company’s business model and external advocacy can intrinsically work together to solve the same problem. If a company can build long-term, supportive relationships with organizations defining the agenda and leading any given movement, then they can take meaningful actions to bolster that effort consistently over time.
No one looks to companies to tackle every issue. We do expect to see clear action and investment, humility and honesty, and a true commitment to participate in the public arena in a way that makes sense. Brands that pick a lane, take meaningful actions over and over again, and communicate proactively—or, even better, allow for audiences to participate meaningfully—earn public confidence and trust and have an easier time determining whether or not to engage on a given flashpoint.
There are plenty of models to follow here. Oatly, the oat milk brand known for its bold brand voice and sustainable product, has kept its efforts centered on environmentalism, including advocating for a public policy requiring climate impact labeling on food products in the EU, which would have a forcing function on companies to improve their practices while educating consumers. Established brands are also finding where they can be advocates. Both Levi’s (sustainability) and Dick’s Sporting Goods (responsible gun ownership) have been successful in integrating consistent, focused, and proactive campaigns into their business models.
Even in tech, there are a number of examples that illuminate the path Basecamp and Coinbase could have taken (and could still pursue). The dating app Bumble has invested in a focused mission around advancing gender equality that, over time, has extended well beyond its product and into political advocacy. Sweetgreen, the tech-minded healthy food company, has long set its sights—naturally—on expanding access to healthy food in schools.
The power of one
Importantly, focusing on one discreet issue area doesn’t mean you get a pass on race. I’ve heard too many leaders characterize Black Lives Matter as a “distraction” from their core mission. Let’s be clear—racism is everywhere in our society. No matter the advocacy lane you identify for your company, fighting for equity and justice is part of it. But don’t lose focus, either. If climate change is your lane, make sure your efforts prioritize marginalized communities who experience climate impacts disproportionately. If you’re fighting for internet freedom, tailor your approach to support people of color most likely to experience online hate and privacy violations.
The only companies left flailing are those—such as Basecamp and Coinbase—that lack a coherent track record of action to create value beyond the almighty dollar. If Basecamp, a workplace collaboration app, had been working to promote greater diversity at all levels of corporate America, support BIPOC-owned small businesses, or even ensure marginalized communities have more of a voice in the workplace, all of which are arguably core to its future business success, its leaders might not feel that the public good is such an intrusion.
Adam Fetcher is a consultant helping leading brands engage in advocacy and activism. He formerly worked as global communications director for Patagonia and senior director of brand advocacy for Lyft. He served in the Obama administration in several senior roles, including deputy national press secretary for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and press secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior. Fetcher also currently serves as a senior adviser at Purpose, a global social-impact and advocacy agency based in New York City. He is based in Minneapolis.