Adlai Wertman is the David C. Bohnett Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the USC Marshall School.  He is the founding Director of The Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab, as well as the Academic Director of the Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship.

Emily Kane Miller is the Founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, a social impact services firm. She also serves as a Scholar in Residence at The Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Adlai and Emily recently met via Zoom to discuss how business leaders and corporations can play a critical role in the fight against COVID-19, and what this moment means for grads looking for purpose-driven work:

AW: Why do corporations – particularly those with core operations unrelated to public health – have a role to play in fighting COVID-19?

EKM: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought illness to every corner of the globe, overwhelmed our healthcare system, stalled economies, and created incredible pain throughout communities, particularly those already living at or below the poverty line.  Pre-COVID, over 80% of families included at least one working adult, which means 100% of employers are a critical component of our collective response. 

Governments and institutions continue to do their best to support strong, resilient communities during this unprecedented time, but – inevitably, gaps exist. Some businesses have stepped up to address the gaps, but we need every business leader to be asking themselves, “how can I help right now?”  

AW: So what can corporations do right now to be helpful?

EKM: Quite a bit. For some corporations, truly the most they can do is keep folks on payroll – and that is not insignificant. Others are able to support with in-kind efforts related to needed products and services. For example, when the school closures occurred, internet companies like Comcast and Spectrum made sure students had access to Wi-Fi free of charge.

On a more macro level, we saw COVID-19 totally upend corporate giving trends. In 2017, approximately $400 billion worth of charitable contributions were donated in the United States, with about $20 billion of that coming from corporations. For COVID-19 related giving, we are seeing a totally different ratio. Corporations are committing the lion’s share of contributions accounting for $40 billion of $78 billion contributed thus far.  That means corporations have generated double the amount of generosity in the last month and half just around COVID-19 than they did across every philanthropic category in 2017. And that doesn’t count in-kind contributions, service donations, or volunteerism.

AW: OK, that’s interesting. What is this trend telling us?

EKM:  I think it shows a few things. First, it is easier for corporations to engage in this work quickly because they are nimbler than most traditional foundations. I do think foundations will catch up, but the fact that corporate dollars were quicker out the gate is material. Second, on a human level, leaders feel compelled to be generous. This is such a painful time for people and communities, and – unlike many other social impact efforts – corporate leaders are personally experiencing this shared pain. Third, business leaders are keenly aware that their response matters. The corporations that are really showing up right now — in the way they are treating employees, deploying generosity, and – of course – writing checks — are really shining.

AW: What about corporations that aren’t sure how to activate? You’ve talked in the past about finding your COVID “superpower” – how would a CEO identify that unique power? 

EKM: First, engage your team – it’s likely that your internal leaders have ideas for how the organization can best show up to be part of the solution right now. From there – don’t be afraid to learn from others. The US Chamber of Commerce has a list of COVID-19 related corporate contributions and Kindred has created a tracker of businesses making “Good Decisions” right now. I would urge business leaders to take a look, get inspired, and jump in.

AW: For our students graduating with a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship degree, is this a good time to be pursuing purpose-driven careers in the business world?

EKM: Without question! Let’s be clear – the businesses that emerge strongest from COVID-19 will be the ones that successfully and authentically lead with soul. Some organizations do this successfully already, but many don’t. These current graduates are entering the market at precisely the time when 1) their talents are needed more than ever, and 2) the business community is unprecedentedly engaged in purpose driven work.

Corporations across sectors are showing a much deeper sense of humanity and generosity. Their investors, consumers and employees are paying attention, and rewarding those that do this work well. Your students chose this line of work to help precisely these kinds of leaders make precisely these kinds of decisions. You were made for this. 

I don’t mean to sugarcoat it, job hunting in this economy is going to be challenging. But for graduates who want purpose-driven careers, I couldn’t imagine a more pressing tip-off moment.