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The C-suite title of the future? Q&A with Amy Smith, Chief Giving Officer at Toms

By Marjorie van Elven

20 Feb 2019

Companies looking to future-proof their existence can no longer turn a blind eye to social and environmental issues, as the ones which are not perceived as having a positive impact in the world are likely to go out of fashion. A 2018 survey of 10,000 millennials (people aged 25-35) and 1,844 Generation Z members (17-24 years old) conducted by consultancy firm Deloitte across the US, UK, Canada, India and China revealed factors such as inclusion and diversity in the workplace, as well as social and environmental impact, to be more determinant in how they perceive a company than its financial results.

Consequently, annual corporate giving is growing in the United States. It reached nearly 21 billion US dollars in 2017, according to Giving USA, and is expected to grow even more in the future. “We’re seeing companies being more generous than ever, and I think we’ll see even more of that in 2019”, said Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in an interview with Linkedin, prompting the business-based social network to name “Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer” and "Chief Ethics Officer" among the hottest C-suite titles of our times.

Amy Smith is one of the people holding such a title. Since 2016, she serves as Chief Giving Officer at American footwear company Toms, best known for its “One for One” business model: for every pair of shoes sold, another one is given to a child in need. But since the company’s founding, in 2006, "One for One" has been expanded to include more than just shoes. In 2011, Toms started selling eyewear and using part of the proceeds to offer eye exams, treatments, surgeries and prescription glasses to people in need. Three years later, a coffee brand called Toms Roasting Co. was launched to help provide safe water (140 liters per person, which corresponds to a one-week supply) to those who lack it. According to Toms’ website, the brand has donated over 86 million shoes, helped restore sight to 600,000 people, and provided 600,000 weeks of safe water. This work is done in collaboration with over 90 partner organizations in 70 countries.

Last November, the brand refocused its social impact efforts back home with the launch of an initiative called End Gun Violence Together in the United States. The company donated 5 million US dollars to organizations working to end gun violence in its home country and asked consumers to use the Toms website to send physical postcards to their representatives, urging them to pass a law establishing universal background checks. But this is only the first in a series of project-based investments we’ll be seeing from Toms, says Smith, marking the beginning of a new era in the brand's activism. FashionUnited spoke to her over the phone to learn more about her role and the evolution of Toms' giving model.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your chosen career. How does one become a ‘Chief Giving Officer’?

I have a mixed background of corporate and nonprofit experience which gave me the tools to work at Toms later on. I started my career at Apple working at a variety of functions, including international real estate development, store design and store operations, where I learned a lot about always reaching for innovation and putting the customer experience first. In 2003 I stepped into the non-profit world. My last position before joining Toms was Chief Strategy Officer at Points of Light, one of the world’s largest organizations dedicated to volunteering service. I’m happy to use the skill set I’ve developed from those experiences to build a bridge between profit and purpose at Toms.

What does your position entail? What does a typical working day look like for you?

As you can imagine, it’s a unique job without a rulebook. While it’s extremely rewarding because I’m passionate about the impact we make, it's challenging too. After all, it's such a critical role within Toms. My job is to strategize and oversee our giving work, making sure that we are making the most impact possible, whether that’s through our shoe, sight and water giving or through our new project-based work that supports local needs. My role entails everything from the ordering to manufacturing, to how the shoes will be stored, to how they will be distributed, to the feedback loop with partners, and analysis of what we can do better. I’m also looking into new projects and local partners, and identifying where we can make a positive impact in the future based on what is needed most.

My days are long but truly never the same, which I love. I manage our network of around 90 giving partners [this is how Toms calls its partner organizations] and our giving programs. My team and I also work on developing the best strategies for our giving, using feedback from our current partners in the field. We feel a strong obligation to give shoes, sight, and water in the most responsible way possible. For example, we now make shoes in a number of different silhouettes to match the climate of the region and activities kids are engaging in. These additions to the product line are a direct result of our giving partner’s feedback. We also make sure to give them shoes, water and sight as part of larger health and education programs, which we’ve found has a greater impact.

In addition, I’m responsible for Toms' giving trips. Every year, Toms takes partners, employees and customers into the field to experience our giving first hand and meet our giving partners. It’s an invaluable and unique experience – it’s so much different when you can see it for yourself.

"It’s a unique job without a rulebook. While it’s extremely rewarding, it's challenging too"

What advice would you give to people aspiring to work in a position such as yours?

You of course need to be passionate about creating positive impact, but it’s important to understand the issue you’ll be focusing on and the organizations that you'll be working with. Each of our giving partners has extensive knowledge in poverty alleviation and community development, but it’s important for me to have an understanding of their challenges and needs, as well as the bigger picture of health and education in their regions.

It’s really important to understand the business you’re in too. The first thing I did when joining Toms was learning the fundamentals of a footwear business, because I didn’t have previous experience in this industry. I spent a lot of time with the sales and product development teams to understand what their needs and focus are. This ultimately helped me do my job better.

Finally, you need to understand that it’s still a business. You have to truly know your customer and ask questions. Will this resonate with our community? What do they stand for and how can we better serve them? Is this inline with our brand identity?

How does Toms choose the local organizations it works with?

Our giving partners come in all shapes and sizes, some are multinational, while others are more regional or even very local. What they all have in common is that they have deep experience in the communities they serve. Our aim is to make our giving sustainable, which means that our partnerships last for several years to ensure we are having real impact in these communities. Each year we evaluate our giving partners to ensure the shoes we give are a meaningful part of their program.

Does Toms maintain or publish statistics about its impact on the communities it helps?

We create a report on a bi-annual basis and have also initiated a number of studies over the years to understand our progress. We also continuously work with our giving partners to assess and reassess our impact.

Earlier this year we announced our B Corp Certification, which speaks to our commitment to the highest social impact and environmental standards, but it’s also been a great way to look at each level of our business and the impact we are making against verified standards.

Toms seems to be transitioning from a giving model towards an advocacy model, with its new campaign to end gun violence in the US. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

For some time we’ve been thinking about our giving strategy and what we should do next. Our commitment to make positive social impact hasn’t changed, but the world we live in has, which is why we feel a responsibility to address the important issues we are facing today. With this in mind, we are evolving our giving model to include local project investments, working with local non-profit organizations and strong local advocates across the globe to find solutions to problems facing the world today. It’s actually an evolution that was instigated by our employees themselves.

This Spring we are launching our first European project-based investments working on issue areas including homelessness, female empowerment, and supporting the next generation of social entrepreneurs. We are partnering with local non-profit organizations as well as inspiring voices on projects that will have local impact in Europe. These are the first of many projects to come.

How many Americans have used Toms’ website to send a postcard to their representatives?

Over 720,000 postcards have been signed so far, exceeding our expectations. It’s been an incredible reaction which shows how important this issue is. It’s complicated for a brand to get involved in this topic because it can be polarizing, but we don’t think this is a republican or democratic issue – it’s a human issue.

People are still able to visit our website and send a postcard. We’d love to see if we can send one million. But on top of the postcards we are so proud of the collective action and independent acts our community has taken to work together on this. This month we are driving across the country from LA to New York to deliver the postcards, holding town halls along the way. We’ve also seen members of our community paint murals, make t-shirts, and activate their own communities. It’s been quite inspiring and shows just how much engagement people want to have on issues that matter to them.

A recent survey by Deloitte revealed millennials and generation Z consumers value companies ‘with a purpose’. For this reason, Toms is just as popular among them as Nike, even though Nike is a lot bigger than Toms.

Since the beginning of Toms back in 2006, we’ve always had an extremely active community of people that believed in what we do. Over the years we’ve impacted a lot of lives, but we’ve also seen many of our customers go on to create their own social enterprises or initiatives. Millennials and Gen Z are purpose-driven and want to support companies that they believe in. We are excited to continue activating our community as well as reach a new Gen Z consumer, truly partnering with them to make the change we and they want to see.

Toms also has critics. The brand has been criticized by news outlets such as Fast Company and Time magazine for only giving a short-term fix to problems, as its donations don’t solve the poverty that generates lack of access to shoes, eye treatments, safe births and drinking water in the first place. Shouldn’t we move from a “giving” perspective to one that prioritizes long-term solutions to lift communities out of poverty?

There are a lot of different ways to go about trying to make the world a better place. We are constantly learning and using those lessons to refine the way we work and make greater impact. It’s always been important to us to listen to our critics, of which we are often the biggest, and from that adjusting if and where it makes sense.

In the case of shoes, the impact is not just about the shoes, but the way they are given, integrated into larger health and education programs, or used as an incentive for parents to engage in education, food and vaccination programs. It’s about the interaction and the dignity. Shoes, sight, and water giving is still impactful and critical to our giving partners and the communities they serve, but we are also exploring new ways of giving. There is no one simple answer to making a better tomorrow.

We will always listen to criticism as an important part of our learning process, but it’s equally important to remember that not all criticism is true - there will always be critics when you try to do something different.

What are Toms’ future plans in terms of giving?

As our giving model is evolving to incorporate project-based investments, we are continuing to look into the issues that we are facing today and our role in addressing those issues, through partnerships with organizations and individuals who are making change in the world. We not only want to tell their stories and inspire our customers, but mobilize our community to make real impact. We’re so excited to announce our first European projects, but this is only the beginning.

Photos: courtesy of Toms, Toms Facebook, Screenshot Toms US website