There’s a lot of hype around the innovation of tech start-ups, but does this also apply to their CSR strategies? Andrea Riddell asks Atlassian, Canva, Finder and Afterpay what giving back means to them.

Four tech disrupters talk CSR and giving back

An Atlassian volunteer at a Room to Read supported school in Cambodia. Atlassian Foundation’s pillars are educate, enlist and energise.

This is the era of the celebrity tech entrepreneur. From Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos, the antics, inventions, tweets and charitable contributions of tech innovators and disrupters have well and truly been documented. On our home soil, the Atlassian founders, are extremely vocal about environmental and social issuesCo-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes is a lead investor in a $20 billion Sun Cable venture looking to export Australian solar power into Asia. 

But does this spirit of innovation feed into their companies’ approaches to corporate social responsibility? When it comes to giving back, are they following in the footsteps of traditional Corporate Australia, or are they bucking the trend and choosing to carve out their own space? We asked four of Australia’s tech game-changers for their takes on CSR. 

For-profit with a for-purpose mindset 

Whether the public shares this view or not, these new tech companies believe their businesses – at their very core – exist to help people and make the world a better place. They build purpose into their mission and vision. Their values could easily be mistaken for a nonprofit’s. 

These days, tech founders don’t believe in the process of starting a business and only giving back once it’s successful. A social mission must be at the very forefront of why they exist in the first place.  

These companies focus on using their core product or service as a channel for giving back. Whether that’s donating products or services under Pledge 1%, providing specialised access to nonprofits, or creating content to empower people with information during disasters, they aim to ensure that charities not only have access to their offering, but their use of it is enhanced.  

For Finder, a comparison site for people looking for information on everything from electricity plans to where to buy cryptocurrencies, their mission is to help people make better financial decisions. Still in their growth phase, Finder employed Ben King as CSR & Public Affairs Manager, to bring more strategy to their sustainability.  

“It’s not CSR in the traditional model of ‘Here’s our pot of gold, who are we going to give it to?” It’s about how do we think about what we have – a big platform with lots of people on it, the ability to write content quickly, to analyse data quickly, the ability to make interesting content – they’re our big core strengths as a business. How do we utilise them to have an impact?” says Ben. 

Finder has two core CSR pillars: financial betterment (which includes literacy, capability, and wellbeing) and climate emergency.

Finder has a large audience, and instead of volunteering and donating, they utilise this to help the community. During the bushfires, Finder produced guides to help those affected learn how to access their insurance. They also compiled a roundup of all the charities taking disaster appeal donations. For the pandemic, they tested and created guides on the best face masks and where to buy them. They also compiled what is thought to be the only national guide on COVID-19 testing locations. At the time, it was managed on a state-level with no comprehensive national list. 

“For now, we think the biggest impact we think we can have as a business is through the business, says Ben. 

Finder has two core CSR pillars that they focus on: financial betterment (which includes literacy, capability, and wellbeing) and the climate emergency.  

If you’re looking at financial literacy, all the big banks are throwing money at it. We can’t really compete on a dollarfor-dollar basis with Westpac or Commbank. We’ve got assets they don’t have so we have to be creative and use our core business to deliver what we’re doing. It’s less traditional but I think we can still make an impact,” says Ben. 

Profit is not a dirty word. We shouldn’t be worried that our CSR programs help deliver business outcomes as well. We are probably one of the lucky companies in a sense in that its easier for us because from inception we are naturally a purposeled business – we help people make better financial decisions. The more people we help make better decisions, the more money we make. 

Afterpay is another Australia tech start-up making waves.  

They position themselves as a budgeting tool, allowing customers to pay for items in instalments while receiving the items at the time of purchasing. There has been a lot of criticism of the rise of ‘buy now, pay later’ platforms from financial literacy organisations saying that they can lead to bad financial habits.  

But with 50,000 to 60,000 merchants on their platform, and the declining popularity of credit cards, Afterpay – while only young – is going from strength to strength. Their mission is to power an economy where everyone wins and they use their platform to encourage good financial habits. 

“Afterpay only makes money when customers pay on time and this is something that we’re committed to recognising and rewarding,” says Afterpay’s Director of Public Policy and Regulatory Affairs, Michael Saadat.  

“Rather than being about how much debt you get into and how long it takes you to pay down that debt, our rewards program only rewards customers who pay on time.” 

Afterpay also doesn’t allow customers to continue to purchase through their platform if they’re late on a payment. 

“What that means is that when customers succeed, we succeed. There then isn’t a discussion around,” Oh well, if we want to do CSR then that will be a hit to our profit. It’s actually, No, the long-term sustainability of the company depends on these things working effectively, says Michael. 

Empowering the masses 

These companies are passionate about making wide-scale change and having the most impact they can.  

Australia’s tech darling, Atlassian lives by their value ‘be the change you seek.’  

“We believe that we have a responsibility to contribute to society both globally and locally,” says Head of Atlassian Foundation Mark Reading. 

Atlassian Foundation’s pillars are educate, enlist and energise. Education is about helping to educate disadvantaged youth around the world at scale. Enlist is about bringing out the best in business by enlisting them into the Pledge 1% movement. Energise is about creating energy internally, reducing friction so Atlassians can make the biggest difference in whatever areas they’re most passionate about.  

“Educate is all about helping to educate disadvantage youth around the world at scale. We choose education because it’s a core underlying issue rather than just a symptom of poverty or disadvantage. It’s a game changer for individuals, families, communities and countries. It also has intergenerational benefits, says Mark. 

When COVID-19 hit, they brought forward all their grant making and untied funds – something that they’re looking to do for all their grants going forward. They also rolled out free editions of their core products Jira, Confluence and Jira Service Desk. Teachers, having to deal with online learning, were given Trello Business Class for free. 

Design platform Canva launched their Foundation in February this year to harness their passion and determination to give back into a more structured approach. Their mission is to ‘Be a force for good by bringing the best of Canva to help solve global challenges in the most impactful way possible 

It’s pretty broad, but the best of Canva will never change, and to me, the best of Canva is our people. It’s our people and of course, our tool, and our users, says Canva Foundation Manager, Robyn King.  

Like many other tech companies out there, Canva is focused on empowering people through their core business – their two-step plan is one, build the world’s most valuable company and two, is do the most good we can. 

The Foundation is following suit.  

One aspect of their program is empowering nonprofits to use their tool, which is offered free to any registered charity. Currently they have 75,000 organisations signed up, but they’re keen to reach more. Charity users can tap into a team of designers and writers to help build their campaigns.  

They held a Design for Change week in Augusta series of online webinars that had three components: employees were able to volunteer to work on a Canva product, work with nonprofits on a design project, or participate in design education and skill building.  

They had 50,000 nonprofits sign up: “More than anything, it showed me that there’s a huge amount of need and interest,” says Robyn. 

Canva also have their sights set on the bigger picture. 

“There are many people who will never be part of the digital economy just from lack of opportunity and where they’re born. So how can we empower them to become part of the digital economy and help us build the future, so we do have a future that’s truly diverse,” says Robyn. 

They’re looking into areas of high youth unemployment and areas with high growth in populations and combining these with research into the skills of the future. Their aim is to create an education to employment program, where they can train a cohort of people with employable skills to be able to get a job – or better yet, create one. 

Teaching design skills is an obvious place to start for Canva, however, if we truly want to ensure we scale our program and impact, we need to identify growing areas of digital work at scale, beyond Canva. There’s a whole heap of things that we can train for and make sure that people also have the wraparound support and infrastructure: computers, data and power. And then, how can we leverage our own employee base to really empower individuals? This program aims to give individuals a hand-up, not a handout, and empower them to become the authors of their own futures.” 

Influencing their communities 

Tech start-ups are also more likely to use their influence to encourage their inner circle (read: other tech companies) to also give back or make their businesses more sustainable.  

Atlassian co-founded Pledge 1% for this very purpose, encouraging businesses to donate at least 1% of their product/services, time, equity, and profit. Pledge 1% aims to build a movement of corporate philanthropy, ensuring that its embedded into companies’ DNA not just an afterthoughtIn October this year, Forbes reported that over 10,000 companies in over 100 countries had joined the pledge, generating half-a-billion net new dollars to invest back into the community. In Australia, we recently saw the first ASX-listed company to donate 1% of equity to charity.  

“We want to challenge the notion that you work all your life, you build your wealth and then you give back to those less fortunate. We believe that businesses can and should bake social impact into the DNA of their organisation from the beginning, says Mark. 

Pledge 1% was created only two or three years into Atlassian’s journey, so its very essence is baked into the core of the company. When COVID-19 hit, they increased their financial commitment to Pledge 1%, encouraging others to do the same. 

“We made a special donation matching offer that encouraged all other financial supporters of the movement to reaffirm their funding of Pledge 1%. If they reaffirmed their commitment within 30 days then they triggered matching from Atlassian. We saw a huge response, says Mark. 

Four tech disrupters talk CSR and giving backFinder launched the Finder Green Awards this year as part of their climate emergency pillar. The awards celebrate businesses doing their bit to address the climate emergency. Nominees were judged on “broad environmental metrics including greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy usage and waste avoiding landfill, while criteria for the people-based categories was based on key achievements and impact”.  

“There wasn’t any good rating system out there. We wanted to find the greenest option for a bunch of things but nothing really existed,” says Ben.  

Those things include ‘Green Bank of the Year, Green Superannuation Fund of the Year, Green Telco of the Year, and Green Hotel of the Year. Other categories include Green Team of the Year and Green Leader of the Year.  

The awards also make sense for Finder’s audience. Consumer research had told them that 51% of Australians somewhat care about their environmental footprint. While it might not seem like a strong sentiment, when faced with the choosing between two similar products, with one that’s green, they’ll often go with the green option. And that’s the point for Finder – mobilising the 51% to make greener choices.  

Similarly, Afterpay is keen to empower their customer base through education and information. They provide 15 million referrals to merchants every month, proving that they’re a powerful method for connecting customers with brands. 

With close ties to the fashion industry, Afterpay recently launched a partnership with fashion app, Good On You. The app rates fashion brands based on sustainability and ethics criteria. Part of Afterpay’s shop directory will now be powered by Good On You, providing ratings on brands for customers to factor into their purchasing.  

Four tech disrupters talk CSR and giving back

“Having an independent third party like Good On You, which has got enormous credibility in this space, is really important. It’s one thing for us to say someone is sustainable, but it’s quite important for someone like Good On You to say that,” says Michael. 

Afterpay is also paying for 50 of their merchants to be rated by the app every month. They’re hoping that this approach will encourage customers to make informed choices.  

“We don’t see our role as preventing customers from shopping at places that aren’t necessarily sustainable, but we want to move the needle so that more and more of our customers are shopping sustainably,” says Michael. 

The role of nonprofits 

So where does that leave nonprofits? With the pace that tech start-ups are moving and growing, how can we hitch a ride, or risk being left behind?  

While tech companies are agile, and have the resources to get things done quickly, it’s important for non-profits to bring their expertise in program delivery and outcomes measurement to the table. We have a great opportunity to direct the conversation around what is best practice.  

Similarlythere is opportunity for nonprofits to lean on their tech corporate partners to mobilise and help with agility in times of crisis or natural disasters. Tech companies are looking for ways to roll up their sleeves and help out – evident with their activity and engagement during natural disasters – but what else can they offer the sector? During last season’s bushfires, we saw criticism over the speed in delivering support to communities in need. Can we adopt the speed of a tech innovator without compromising quality program delivery?  

Tech companies are also in tune with their target audiences. Many are conducting research, surveying their user base and gaining insights into their consumersWith insights into what consumers are looking for, a deep understanding of their target audiences – many of which are young – can nonprofits tap into this knowledge in order to better target and speak to different demographics?

What is evident is that each of these tech companies see their people and their core business as their best assets – not their ability to make a financial contribution. They want to use their skills and expertise (which they have plenty of) to make a difference from the very beginning of their journey, and this goal has a global outlook. Don’t wait for tech start-ups to grow-up before approaching them for support, you might be too late. 

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