The New Corporate Social Activism

Corporations and their executives are actively engaged in many of the leading social issues and debates of the day. Through pronouncements, policies, boycotts, sponsorships, lobbying, and fundraising, corporations and their executives have very publicly engaged on a wide range of social issues like immigration policy, gun regulation, income equality, and religious freedom. Why are they doing this? How did we get here? What does it mean for business and society going forward?

My recent article in the Boston University Law Review, Incorporating Social Activism, sheds light on these questions. It offers a comprehensive legal examination of the new corporate social activism, and the emerging consequential interplay between businesses and social activists on some of the most pressing issues of our time. It investigates why corporations are engaged in social activism today, reveals the legal and policy developments that have fueled contemporary corporate social activism, analyzes potential promises and perils, and offers pragmatic proposals to address important implications for law, business, and society.

This new corporate social activism is fostered in part by three larger, interconnected factors in business, law, and society: (1) the convergence of government and private enterprise, (2) the maturation of corporate social responsibility efforts, and (3) the expansion of corporate political rights. First, the public responsibilities of government and the private endeavors of business have blurred as government and business frequently act in interchangeable ways. Given this public-private convergence, activists seeking social change will pursue not only traditional public channels of government but also the new private channels of corporations to achieve their goals. Moreover, contemporary political gridlock and obstructionist partisanship have made new corporate channels of social change more appealing relative to the traditional public channels of government. Second, the maturation of corporate social responsibility efforts is another key contributing factor in the rise of contemporary corporate social activism. As businesses profess and position themselves to be socially conscious, social activists will more readily try to leverage the tools and resources of businesses towards achieving their aims. Third, the expansion of corporate political rights has played a significant role in fostering contemporary corporate social activism. Following the landmark cases of Citizens United v. FEC and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., business interests are playing an ever-growing role in politics, policymaking, and social activism. Consequently, social activists have made greater efforts to leverage the expanding political means and influence of corporations to serve their ends. Collectively, these three factors have created fertile conditions for corporations and social activists to engage one another on some of the large, pressing issues confronting contemporary society, leading to a new form of corporate social activism.

Contemporary corporate social activism presents both significant rewards as well as serious risks for businesses, activists, and society. On the upside, as detailed in the article, thoughtful corporate social activism could broaden and deepen the impact of activism, improve efficiencies of activism, and enhance corporate value. On the downside, heedless corporate social activism could further politicize an already balkanized marketplace, marginalize important social issues, and corrode core democratic values and institutions.

This new corporate social activism also has broad implications for law, business, and society beyond affecting just the insular, contested social issues themselves. In particular, corporate stakeholders, social activists, lawyers, and policymakers should be mindful of the impact of such activism on corporate purpose, corporate governance, and public interest lawyering as they navigate the changing terrain of business and social activism. First, corporate social activism could markedly shift businesses from their traditional singular, amoral purpose of profit maximization to a new multivariate aim that takes into greater consideration social impact and social value on an equivalent or nearly equivalent basis to profit maximization. Second, it complicates the dynamic interplay among managers, directors, and shareholders over control of the corporation by injecting social activists into the arena of corporate governance. Corporate executives have to measure their business decisions by more than the traditional financial metrics of the past, and now have to better account for the social responses that can arise from their business decisions. Third, corporate social activism could help diversify the types of individuals that pursue public interest law, and expand the vocational paths that one classifies as public interest lawyering. It can attract a wider, more diverse pool of law students and lawyers to work for corporations and corporate law firms as a means to help effectuate positive social change.

In sum, the rise of this new corporate social activism will impact many aspects of law, business, and society. The dynamic conflicts and collaborations between and amongst businesses and activists will likely present some of the most challenging questions for business leaders in the years to come. While corporations are not selfless entities that cause no social harm, corporate power, expertise, and resources can be leveraged to lighten the heavy burdens confronting society. Many of the social challenges of our time are simply too important, too large, and too complex to be left to governments and nonprofits to face on their own. While one can be reasonably and cautiously optimistic about the long-term outlook of corporate social activism, one should also recognize the very real, potentially corrosive effects that such activism can have on our politics, our markets, and our society. Ultimately, the new corporate social activism will be one of the most consequential recent developments for businesses, law, and society, and will remain so for years to come – in ways large and small.

The full paper is available for download here.

Previously featured in the Oxford Business Law Blog.


Tom C.W. Lin is a Professor of Law at Temple Law School. His research and teaching expertise are in the areas of business organizations, corporations, securities regulation, financial technology, financial regulation, and compliance. Professor Lin and his research has been cited and published by numerous leading journals. Prior to entering academia, Professor Lin practiced law at the New York State Office of the Attorney General and Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City.