A Roadmap for Business and Social Movement Collaboration

by Kelly R. Eskew, J.D.
Clinical Associate Professor
Department of Business Law & Ethics
Kelley School of Business, Indiana University
1309 East Tenth Street
Bloomington, IN 47405
kreskew@indiana.edu


This year, the Indiana General Assembly offered up Senate Bill 101 (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or “RFRA”), [1] a law ostensibly intended to protect Hoosiers from having to violate their religious principles, but widely viewed as a discriminatory response to the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in 2014 that struck down the state’s prohibition on same-sex marriage. [2] RFRA raced through the Republican supermajority legislature and was quickly made law by Governor Mike Pence, one of the nation’s most conservative governors. [3] But soon after, Pence signed an amendment that not only affirmed the rights of gays and lesbians, but also those who face discrimination on the basis of gender identity. [4]

Business and grassroots advocacy leaders collaborated to try to defeat RFRA. [5] None expected to succeed, [6] but what they achieved surprised everyone – and this collaboration is not an outlier. Businesses worked with social justice advocates on marriage equality, which is now the law throughout the country. [7] In fact, businesses often engage in such initiatives. [8] Businesses have corporate social responsibility (“CSR”) programs of varying complexity that not only make charitable donations through their foundations, but also pioneer environmental projects and work to strength communities and schools. [9] CSR is also part of the syllabus in business ethics classes, which many business schools now require students to take. [10] In other words, social responsibility has moved from fad to policy. Businesses are also creating their own social movements that mirror the principles shared by grassroots advocates in areas such as poverty eradication, health-care access, and sustainability. [11]

So when and why does the American business community align itself with grassroots social movements? And is there a roadmap that shows each how to leverage the other to achieve shared goals? A fully fleshed response to these questions is beyond the scope of this post, but the RFRA experience suggests some answers.

The message of RFRA was at odds with the state’s reputation for hospitality and its increasing national profile as a convention and sports hub. [12] But it also potentially impacted the ability of Indiana companies to attract the best and brightest to the state. [13] Gays and lesbians, as well as their allies, found the Indiana legislature’s continuing hostility toward equal rights to be deeply offensive. [14] It threatened the stability of Hoosier families and families moving to Indiana to contribute to our community and economy. [15]

Cummins, Eli Lilly, and others, including the Indy Chamber, which represents everyone from small businesses to big corporations, met privately at the state house, testified publicly, and warned legislators that RFRA was unpopular at best and dangerous for Indiana at worst. [16] Nonetheless, their months-long efforts and predictions went unheeded: the legislature pushed RFRA through without hesitation and in defiance of the business community. [17] Business could not win the fight on its own.

In 2014, Freedom Indiana’s grassroots efforts stymied efforts by the Indiana legislature to place a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage on the ballot. [18] Businesses partnered in this effort too, and a memorandum of understanding established the goals and responsibilities of the business/grassroots partnership during that fight. [19] A year later, in late February 2015, Freedom Indiana rapidly re-launched to fight RFRA. [20]. Other LGBT groups also re-activated their efforts in the state. [21] There was limited optimism within the leadership of the campaign that RFRA could be stopped. [22] Grassroots alone could not defeat RFRA’s passage.

As RFRA rolled through the statehouse, business and grassroots groups shared efforts, presenting a united public front through Freedom Indiana and other groups, which drove media efforts and organized rallies and faith vigils. [23] After its passage, nine Indiana CEOs penned an op-ed to Governor Pence calling for a “fix” to RFRA. [24] Freedom Indiana messaged that effort to its broad list of committed supporters. [25] Thirty-nine tech industry leaders released a similar statement condemning Indiana’s RFRA law. [26] As business interests were impacted by the threatened withdrawal of the GenCon and Disciples of Christ conventions, among others, grassroots groups energized and organized movement people to write letters, make phone calls, boycott, and pray. [27]

Governor Pence, a long-time vocal opponent of gay and lesbian rights, [28] signed RFRA into law in a closed ceremony that included nuns in full habits, Franciscan monks, Orthodox rabbis, and several of the most virulently anti-gay activists in the state. [29] The secrecy was suspicious, the leaked photos were weird, and, combined with the persons present, it all belied the message from Pence and others that RFRA was not intended to allow discrimination against the LGBT community.

The day after Pence signed RFRA into law, Freedom Indiana campaign manager Katie Blair expressed exhaustion after weeks of fast-paced, non-stop efforts to mobilize opposition. [30] Frustrated and resigned, she was scheduled to helm an anti-RFRA rally the next day. Believing that “no one’s going to be there,” she planned to catch up on some sleep. [31] What happened next surprised everyone. [32] As Blair directed pre-rally activities, the crowd began to gather. [33] When she turned around to see which of the faithful regulars had come for what was anticipated to be a wake not a battle cry, Blair looked out over thousands of protestors, undaunted and ready to fight on. [34] The next day, Governor Pence gave a shockingly poor performance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, refusing to answer questions and denying, without credibility, the intent of Indiana’s new RFRA law. [35] The fight was not over after all.

Cummins’ Marya Rose was watching the governor’s interview too. [36] Although Rose had been the first from the business side to oppose RFRA publicly back in January, she did not think it could be defeated. [37] However, the backlash to its passage shocked her. [38] Rose explained that “[i]f you look at the polling on this issue, people don’t like unfairness. They don’t all agree on the marriage thing … but they don’t like unfairness.” [39] Cummins had a long history of activism, [40] but on marriage equality and RFRA, business concerns that dictated opposition. Rose explained that Cummins has “a business case around diversity. We believe that having different people help look at decisions and make decisions drives better outcomes.” [41] Mike O’Connor of Lilly echoed this sentiment:

Our core principle of respect for people drove us to get involved [in December 2014, when Lilly told legislators it would oppose RFRA]. It became a core business issue when we saw the national and internal reaction. Everyone who wants to work for Lilly and move up in their career will come to Indiana at some point, and if they don’t want to come here because of something like RFRA, that impacts our business. [42]

Angela Smith Jones of the Indy Chamber, which has constituents of all political stripes, added that “[the Chamber’s] members were looking at how this was impacting the community in which they are building their businesses.” [43]

Several factors appear to have been key to the success of the business/grassroots collaboration on RFRA. First and most significantly, there was a business case for opposing RFRA. [44] Discriminatory laws and attitudes negatively impact recruitment of talented, thoughtful people to the state. [45] This aligns with the grassroots message that treating one’s neighbors, coworkers, friends, and even family members differently based on inherent characteristics like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity demeans (and embarrasses) everyone.

Additionally, the advocacy groups respected the limits of the business case, as Katie Blair and her staff at Freedom Indiana were careful of “mission creep.” [46] They committed to defeating RFRA (and eventually to achieving a reversal in some meaningful form) and worked with businesses for funding and public support. [47] Of course, activists may have a more expansive vision of an issue, one that goes beyond the business case. But collaboration in a focused way may be the limit of what the partnership can support. This is worth doing, even if the entirety of an agenda for social change cannot be achieved collaboratively. The ability and willingness to focus also demonstrates the professionalism that advocacy groups possess and it builds trust. When businesses know that they can hand off the rallying, the social media campaign, and the twenty-four hour news cycle work to advocacy groups who will respect the agreed upon boundaries of the partnership, then businesses can safely come back for further targeted campaigns.

Grassroots advocates, who increasingly join the nonprofit world with educational backgrounds that have trained them for the work, must put their deep and humanistic understanding of social issues to work and “make the business case.” In other words, waiting for social justice and business concerns to sync up is not enough. Finding the nexus and making the argument should be part of the brainstorming for all such campaigns – even when the target is “corporate” in the broadest sense.

Business often conflicts with organizations in the social justice ambit, but why should that be so? Business is at the forefront of sustainability efforts. [48] We can make the business case for stronger environmental protection. Business signs many paychecks, so there is a business case for paying a living wage. And we can make the business case for welcoming all to Indiana and protecting personal dignity and family stability.

Of course, these are the broad strokes. But the RFRA amendment, which was a meaningful legislative and political victory, seems to point toward more possibilities for vibrant collaborations between the grassroots and the boardroom. The former is more than a gathering of “crazies” with protest signs and the latter includes many men and women with a fundamental commitment to social justice. When they work together, public policy, the legislature, and the courts cannot ignore the message.


[1]. S.B. 101, 119th Gen. Assemb., 1st Sess. (Ind. 2015).

            [2]. Tobin Grant, Why No One Understands Indiana’s New Religious Freedom Law, The Washington Post (Mar. 30, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/03/30/why-no-one-understands-indianas-new-religious-freedom-law [http://perma.cc/R3FN-M5MT]; see also Baskin v. Bogan, 766 F.3d 648 (7th Cir. 2014), cert. denied.

            [3]. Kris Kirschner, David MacAnally & Naomi Pescovitz, Governor Pence Signs Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Private Ceremony, WTHR (Mar. 26, 2015, 10:14 AM), http://www.wthr.com/story/28621576/governor-pence-signs-religious-freedom-restoration-act [http://perma.cc/ZX9C-2RX4].

            [4]. Tony Cook, Tom LoBianco & Brian Eason, Gov. Mike Pence Signs RFRA Fix, The Indianapolis Star (Apr. 2, 2015, 8:08 PM), http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/01/indiana-rfra-deal-sets-limited-protections-for-lgbt/70766920/ [http://perma.cc/98EV-KS2Z]; Conf. Com. Rep. 119-50, 1st Sess., (Ind. 2015), available at thestatehousefile.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/SB-50-Conference-Committee-Report.pdf [http://perma.cc/VF8R-4LZC].

            [5]. Interview with Katie Blair, Campaign Manager, Freedom Indiana, in Indianapolis, Ind.; Interview with Marya M. Rose, Vice President-Chief Administrative Officer, Cummins Inc., in Indianapolis, Ind. (May 4, 2015); Interview with Michael O’Connor, Director-State Government Affairs, Eli Lilly & Co., in Indianapolis, Ind. (May 21, 2015); Interview with Angela Smith Jones, Director-Public Policy, Indy Chamber in Indianapolis, Ind. (May 28, 2015).

            [6]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5; interview with Marya Rose, supra note 5; Interview with Michael O’Connor, supra note 5; interview with Angela Smith Jones, supra note 5.

            [7]. Obergefell v. Hodges, Nos. 14–556, 14-562, 14-571, 14–574, 2015 WL 2473451 (U.S. June 26, 2015).

            [8]. See, e.g., John R. Boatwright, Ethics & the Conduct of Business (Pearson 7th ed. 2013).

            [9]. For example, Cummins publicly affirms its commitment to “affirmatively reach[] out to help our communities and engage our workforce in addressing community needs.” Corporate Responsibility, Cummins, http://www.cummins.com/global-impact/corporate-responsibility (last visited July 9, 2015) [http://perma.cc/M54G-GEU8]. Lilly has actively embraced the concept of “shared value,” which seeks an intersection between business opportunity, corporate expertise, and social need. Shared Value, Lilly, http://www.lilly.com/Responsibility/our-approach/Pages/shared-value.aspx (last visited July 9, 2015) [http://perma.cc/7ZEL-N6KD]; see generally Marc Benioff & Karen Southwick, Compassionate Capitalism: How Corporations Can Make Doing Good an Integral Part of Doing Well (Career Press ed., 2004) (coauthored by the CEO of Salesforce, an Indiana company opposed to RFRA); see also Michael E. Porter & Michael Kramer, Strategy and Society: The Link Between Competitive Advantage and Corporate Social Responsibility, Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2006, at 78-92.

            [10]. See, e.g., Kelley School of Business Undergraduate Bulletin, Indiana University, http://bulletins.iu.edu/iub/kelley-ugrad/2013-2014/kelley-ugrad-pdf.pdf [http://perma.cc/WC34-CMF9] (requiring all students to take BUS-L 375, Ethics & the 21st Century Business Leader).

            [11]. John Elkington, How Business Builds Social Movements, Director, Oct. 2013, at 34.

            [12]. See Marc Tracy, Sports Groups in Indianapolis Fight to Keep Their City Welcoming, The New York Times (April 6, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/07/sports/ncaabasketball/sports-groups-fight-to-keep-their-city-welcoming.html?_r=0 [http://perma.cc/U2ZC-PXRG].

            [13]. Jeff Swiatek & Tim Evans, 9 CEOs Call on Pence, Legislature to Modify ‘Religious Freedom’ Law, The Indianapolis Star (Mar. 30, 2015, 10:51 AM), http://www.indystar.com/story/money/2015/03/30/nine-ceos-call-pence-legislature-modify-religious-freedom-law/70689924 [http://perma.cc/5LKP-P738].

            [14]. Mark Barbaro and Erik Eckholm, Indiana Law Denounced as License to Discriminate Against Gays, The New York Times (March 27, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/28/us/politics/indiana-law-denounced-as-invitation-to-discriminate-against-gays.html [http://perma.cc/SH9J-VBJV].

            [15]. Swiatek & Evans, supra note 13.

            [16]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5; interview with Marya Rose, supra note 5; interview with Michael O’Connor, supra note 5; interview with Angela Smith Jones, supra note 5.

            [17]. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Indiana House Passes Controversial Religious Freedom Bill, The Washington Post (March 23, 2015), http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/03/23/indiana-house-passes-controversial-religious-freedom-bill/ [http://perma.cc/P7UT-ENFV].

            [18]. Brandon Smith, Indiana House Changes HJR-3 To Restart Ratification Process, Indiana Public Media (January 27, 2014), http://indianapublicmedia.org/news/indiana-house-amendments-hjr3-62097/ [http://perma.cc/6K7R-JJG3].

            [19]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5.

            [20]. Freedom Indiana is Back, Freedom Indiana (March 4, 2015), freedomindiana.org/freedom-indiana-relaunch/ [http://perma.cc/WNA5-U7Q2].

            [21]. Id.

            [22]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5.

            [23]. See generally Blog Posts, Freedom Indiana, freedomindiana.org/category/news/blog (last visited July 9, 2015) [http://perma.cc/J77F-4DPL].

            [24]. Swiatek & Evans, supra note 13.

            [25]. 9 Major CEO’s Tell Governor Pence: Move Quickly to Fix RFRA and Protect LGBT Hoosiers!, Freedom Indiana (Mar. 30, 2015), freedomindiana.org/ceos [http://perma.cc/CUF5-JLLC].

            [26]. Tech Industry Leaders Make Unprecedented & Historic Joint Statement to Legislators, Freedom Indiana (Apr. 1, 2015), freedomindiana.org/techleaders [http://perma.cc/ZV7E-EGNV].

            [27]. Gen Con – One of Indianapolis’ Largest Conventions – Threatens to Relocate Because of RFRA, Freedom Indiana (Mar. 24, 2015), freedomindiana.org/gencon [http://perma.cc/5FX5-T9XE]; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Reconsidering 2017 Convention in Indianapolis if RFRA is Signed into Law, Freedom Indiana (Mar. 25, 2015), freedomindiana.org/christianchurch [http://perma.cc/ZDB7-ZGGZ]; see generally Blog Posts, Freedom Indiana, freedomindiana.org/category/news/blog (last visited July 9, 2015) [http://perma.cc/Z6Q6-P6L8].

            [28]. See Mike Pence on Gay Marriage, The Political Guide, http://www.thepoliticalguide.com/Profiles/House/Indiana/Mike_Pence/Views/Gay_Marriage (last updated Jan. 20, 2011) [http://perma.cc/M942-D6UQ].

            [29]. Tony Cook, Who Attended Religious Freedom Bill Signing? Gov. Pence’s office Won’t Say, The Indianapolis Star (Mar. 26, 2015, 11:40 AM), http://www.indystar.com/story/news/politics/2015/03/26/attended-religious-freedom-bill-signing-gov-pences-office-say/70511374 [http://perma.cc/C4JQ-XHJ5].

            [30]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5.

            [31]. Id.

            [32]. Id.

            [33]. Cara Anthony, Thousands in Indiana Protest ‘Religious Freedom’ Law, The Indianapolis Star (Mar. 28, 2015, 10:01 PM), http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2015/03/28/hundreds-in-indy-protest-rfra-law/70594058/ [http://perma.cc/JE4H-TE9A].

            [34]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5.

            [35]. Leftprogressive, George Stephanopoulos Grills Mike Pence on Indiana’s ‘License to Discriminate’ Law, Daily Kos (Mar. 29, 2015, 6:59 PM), http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/03/30/1374218/-George-Stephanopoulos-Grills-Mike-Pence-On-Indiana-s-License-To-Discriminate-Law# [http://perma.cc/V52Q-6PVG].

            [36]. Interview with Mayra Rose, supra note 5.

            [37]. Id.

            [38]. Id.

            [39]. Id.

            [40]. See, e.g., Jeffrey L. Cruikshank & David B. Sicilia, The Engine That Could: 75 Years of Values-Driven Change at Cummins Engine Company (Harvard Business School Press ed., 1997).

            [41]. Interview with Mayra Rose, supra note 5.

            [42]. Interview with Mike O’Connor, supra note 5.

            [43]. Interview with Angela Smith Jones, supra note 5.

            [44]. Interview with Mayra Rose, supra note 5; Interview with Mike O’Connor, supra note 5; Interview with Angela Smith Jones, supra note 5.

            [45]. Id.

[46]. Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5.

            [47]. See Blog Posts, supra note 23; see also Interview with Katie Blair, supra note 5.

            [48]. See, e.g., Andrew Savitz, The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success – And How You Can Too (rev. and updated with Karl Weber), (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2013).

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