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Twilio’s CSR department is a business unit, not a cost center

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Twilio has developed a unique approach for its corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. It starts with Twilio.org, a suite of services for nonprofits, offered at a discount or for free in certain cases. Over 7,000 social organizations are either a client or grant recipient.

Twilio.org operates like a line of business. Its revenue, which was around $60 million last year, funds the CSR department’s expenses including salaries, grant programs, and philanthropy. The department had two people in 2013, but is now 31 strong across a variety of roles due to its 150+% revenue growth in each of the last four years.

With the dedicated support of co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson, the social impact division is led by Erin Reilly, who joined Twilio in 2016 after holding social responsibility leadership roles at Google and Yahoo. In a recent op-ed in Quartz, she stated that the key to CSR success “is to align social impact programs with capitalism’s fundamental driver: making a profit.”

Reilly told Fortune her job is “to really leverage our products, our people, and our funding to build a better world,” later adding, “The ways that companies have been tackling corporate social responsibility in the past are just not able to do enough to really make the impact that we need.”

Reilly became chief social impact officer in November 2019 after more than three years as vice president of social impact. Over time, she’s learned how to integrate CSR throughout the company’s operations. 

“Let’s be clear - capitalism isn't our savior, but as long as it’s a dominant force in our society, it should do its part, just like the government and public sector do,” Reilly said.

In addition to the CSR partners for sales, service, and product departments, Twilio's CSR group includes a programs team focused on community issues, grants, environmental responsibility, and social applications for the company’s communications platform. As an example, The Trevor Project, a nonprofit which runs a hotline for suicide prevention among LGBTQ+ youth, is a client of Twilio.org.

“We have a technology that can really mean the difference in [critical] times,” Reilly said. The company’s communications platform was also used to support vaccination efforts globally. “We also saw it as an area that was overlooked by many other companies.”

Reilly and Twilio also emphasized that nonprofits are quite capable technically, despite the preconceived notions that they are not.

“Nonprofits are some of the most innovative organizations out there,” Reilly said. “A lot of times there's this myth that nonprofits are the tech laggards. But we see the exact opposite.”

In a 52-page impact report, Twilio outlined its CSR strategy, provided a representation report, ESG disclosures, an anti-racism commitment, and a detailed summary of takeaways from the past year. The company believes strongly that its product-driven approach to CSR is the best way to have a healthy, well-aligned function.

“Financial leaders often see that return on investment as pretty compelling,” Reilly explained. “Because you have revenue and profit, as well as helping employees feel proud to work there, as well as building brand affinity, and you're helping create a positive impact in the world. Very few departments in a company have that type of an ROI.”

While measuring success in this arena is challenging, Twilio is focused on the number of lives impacted by nonprofit partners, the depth of their impact on key issues, and donations made by employees or the company.

“As you can imagine, it's hard to give you a one number that that all rolls up to because it crosses many different issue areas whether it's education or racial justice or vaccine distribution,” Reilly said. “We need to make sure that the social impact is aligned with the core purpose and value that the company is providing overall.”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com