Corporate America responded on an unprecedented scale. 

Hundreds of companies made financial pledges — totalling more than $67 billion — to support the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Creative Investment Research, an economic research firm that has tracked diversity investing for decades. Another analysis, by McKinsey, a consulting firm, found that companies committed closer to $200 billion to combat systemic inequity and racism more broadly.

Where did that money go?

Only $652 million — less than 1 percent of the $67 billion BLM pledge — had been spent as of June, Creative Investment Research found.

The low numbers, determined by monitoring corporate press releases that explicitly mention Black Lives Matter spending and investments, raised questions about which companies actually are making good on those promises. 

They also drew attention from Congress. During a hearing hosted by the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services last week, Democrat Rep. Maxine Waters of California addressed a panel of industry leaders and experts and asked what Congress could do to ensure corporations follow through on commitments.

“How can we increase the disclosure that is necessary to help hold public companies accountable to the promises that they make?” asked Waters, the chairwoman of the committee. “What are other ways that Congress can ensure that these promises are not simply empty platitudes?”

The 19th examined how women-led businesses responded to last summer’s calls for change. Nearly half of the women-led Fortune 500 companies made a profit last year, according to Fortune, despite a pandemic that caused an economic fallout unlike any in American history, and  studies have shown that women-led businesses perform better financially. Still, little to no research has been done on whether these same businesses behave differently when it comes to social impact. 

The 19th analyzed public statements and reports of the record-number of Fortune 500 companies helmed by a woman and identified nearly $2 billion in pledges before reaching out to see how well they’ve followed through on their promises. (Six of these women CEOs did not hold the position until 2021.)

A dozen of the 41 women-led companies responded and disclosed how much they had spent thus far. In total, they reported more than $22.5 million — not including undisclosed donation amounts — toward groups and causes related to social justice and racial equity.  The most generous accounting of those numbers suggests a little more than 1 percent of those pledges have been met, placing these companies only slightly ahead of the pack.

Why they acted

Corporate social responsibility — in which companies consider social and environmental issues — is hardly a new concept. However, Floyd’s murder ignited a wave of corporate messaging that experts deemed unprecedented. According to McKinsey, one-third of Fortune 1000 companies made public statements about racial equity between Floyd’s death and the end of October.

Trish Foster, the executive director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University, said the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black people paired with the widespread use of social media and a collective angst caused by the pandemic created a “definite shift.”

“Every single person in this country watched over and over and over again as George Floyd was held down,” Foster said. “And it was undeniable that we were seeing someone being murdered… Those visuals — perhaps the most compelling in recent history — became a trigger that felt like it pushed us as a society over the edge when it comes to equity issues.” 

Companies that are dedicated to their social goals tend to have better bottom-line results, Foster added. In a recent preprinted study, researchers found empirical evidence that corporate social responsibility attributes — including diversity — increase innovation within the company, lower financing costs and enhance customer loyalty and employee productivity. 

What they said

In the weeks following Floyd’s death, many public company executives mentioned the words “racism” or “racial” at investor-facing events for the first time, according to data from Sentieo, a financial and corporate research platform. After reviewing transcripts of investors’ meetings and earnings calls during that period, Sentieo also found a major spike in mentions of “systemic racism” and “Black Lives Matter” before returning to previous levels.

Xiaoye Chen, associate professor of marketing at North Central College, said it is fairly common for companies to donate to general social causes, but rare for them to voice support of singular events. They tend to be “highly selective” when choosing who or what to support, Chen said.

The 19th found that all but 11 of the women-led Fortune 500 companies released statements or gave interviews that explicitly referred to Floyd.

Michael Nalick, assistant professor of management at the University of Denver, said companies “gauge the mood” of the public before taking a stance on an issue: the less controversial, the better. 

“The killing of George Floyd was an apex moment for movement in this country to recognize racist activity in society,” Nalick said. “Before then, I’d say it was more of a controversial issue that companies felt uncomfortable weighing in on.”

Citigroup — now helmed by Jane Fraser — committed the largest dollar amount. In September the company announced it would dedicate more than $1 billion in strategic initiatives to “help close the racial wealth gap and increase economic mobility” in the U.S. over the course of three years. 

United Parcel Service pledged $4.2 million and one million employee volunteer hours of service. 

“No one is safe until we are all safe, and we know there is no place in any community anywhere in the world for racism, bigotry or hate,” Carol Tomé, the chief executive of UPS, said in a June 2020 statement. “We will not stand quietly or idly on the sidelines of this issue.”

CVS Health committed at least $600 million, Anthem pledged $50 million and Best Buy promised $44 million — all to be spent within the next five years. General Motors pledged $10 million. Meanwhile, women-led Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Nasdaq, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, Clorox, Hershey, Rite Aid, Edward Jones, Williams-Sonoma, Progressive, Northrop Grumman, Duke Energy, Kohl’s and Gap committed to varying amounts, from $300,000 to $4.2 million. 

What they did

When reached for comment, nearly half of the women-led Fortune 500 companies responded to The 19th with a progress report on their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, though only 12 divulged how much money had been spent. Many reported a work-in-progress; some had fulfilled their commitments; and one had even exceeded its initial pledge. Here are some of the results:

  • UPS overshot their $4 million commitment, giving more than $6.3 million to Black initiatives and communities in 2020, according to a company spokesperson. This is not including the $3.2 million of legacy funding that the company typically gives each year.
  • Clorox pledged $2.5 million in 2020 and delivered. According to the company, that donation led to grants being made to all 27 U.S. Clorox locations, with a focus on Oakland — where the company is headquartered — and Atlanta. In addition, the company enabled 45 grants to racial justice organizations chosen by employees. 
  • Edward Jones also met its $1.2 million pledge, according to an update from the company. The money went towards the National Urban League and St. Louis Urban League. Some of these investments helped 300 Black men find jobs during the pandemic by offering skill building, job placement services and professional stylists. 
  • Northrop Grumman made good on its $1 million commitment to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, according to a company spokesperson. In addition, the Northrop Grumman Foundation has matched $728,000 of employee donations to nearly 100 organizations focused on social justice and equity — as of June 2021. 
  • PG&E made two charitable contributions in May totaling $1 million to boost technology access for young students, in addition to introducing an automatic 100% match for employee donations, according to a company spokesperson.
  • Thrivent has made about $2.8 million of its $3 million commitment. These initial investments have gone to more than 100 organizations across 23 states, according to a company spokesperson. In addition, company membership has contributed an additional $435,852. 
  • Vertex Pharmaceuticals said through a spokesperson that $3.4 million of its $4 million pledge “will be disbursed by the end of summer 2021.”
  • Rite Aid has distributed $1.2 million of its $2 million pledge as of June, according to a company spokesperson. A $1 million grant was provided to United Way Worldwide in 2020 along with $200,000 to EmbraceRace. The remaining $800,000 will be processed later this summer, the spokesperson said. 

A call for accountability

In the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services hearing on June 29, members of the diversity and inclusion subcommittee examined Floyd’s legacyand called for the financial services industry to make good on commitments to racial justice.

“Investors and stakeholders have increased demands for companies to conduct independent racial equity audits to ensure that they don’t contribute to systemic racism,” Democrat Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, chairwoman of the subcommittee, said. “The nation’s largest financial institutions — many of them are fighting these efforts.”

When asked whether companies should be required to be transparent in their diversity, equity and inclusion performance, Fabrice Coles, the vice president of government affairs at the Bank Policy Institute, replied no, but added that transparency was included in the institute’s best practices report.

Nalick, who researches the intersection of politics and business and CEO activism, said companies who don’t have actions behind their statements lack sincerity, which has to come from the top.

“It’s easy to make statements about hiring and diversity,” Nalick said. “But unless you have reports, board of directors’ notes and detailed  annual reports, there isn’t a lot there for you to hold them accountable.”

Fortune launched a new initiative last year to rank companies based on their diversity, equity and inclusion disclosure and performance. In partnership with data from Refinitiv, Fortune assessed 14 metrics, including board diversity, the availability of child care, the percentage of women managers and the minority salary gap.

Gap, Progressive, Citigroup, Anthem and Walgreens Boots Alliance — all led by women — were ranked in the top 20 companies when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, according to this new initiative.

Foster said she is optimistic that genuine progress is occurring in the diversity, equity and inclusion space, but added that performative gestures —  including performative allyship — have become a significant hurdle to progress. 

Performative gestures are when businesses acknowledge inequity but don’t do anything to make substantive change, Foster said. Examples include: commemorating Equal Pay Day but not auditing salaries by race or gender to correct pay gaps; vocalizing support for Black Lives Matter while continuing to hire vendors that marginalize Black employees; and making statements of anger about specific instances of social injustice without following up to learn more about the underlying historic, systemic issues.

“Gestures that aren’t rooted in real change hurt the people they are meant to support and therefore maintain the status quo, which is both inequitable and demoralizing,” Foster said. 

Foster said there were three things that companies should be doing to move beyond making statements. First, they should assess the situation, the climate, their employees and their culture. Then, they should work to increase their employees’ knowledge and understanding of the issue. And lastly, they have to take action by setting goals and executing on them, she said.

Are corporations creating lasting and long-term change or is the focus on diversity and equity merely temporary? Foster said that’s the “million-dollar question.”

Mariel Padilla   
General Assignment Reporter
Published  July 8, 2021, 1:57 p.m. ET