Part 3: Q&A with Center board member Roger Bolton

May 4, 2018

Roger Bolton

Page Center intern Sarah Vlazny interviewed Arthur W. Page Society president and former Aetna senior vice president of communications Roger Bolton. This installment is the third of three blog posts covering Vlazny's discussion with Bolton, who is also a member of the Page Center advisory board. In the the current post, Bolton talks about authentic campaigns and aligning philanthropic strategies with corporate purpose. You can read post #1 and post #2 on the Page Center blog.

What’s the difference between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and corporate purpose and how can the two sometimes be confused?

It’s very interesting because when we talk about corporate purpose, the conversation quickly goes to things that I consider to be CSR. They have to do with mitigating the negative impacts of the business that you’re in—environmental or whatever it may be. Or it has to do with how you treat people in the course of your work. There’s certainly expectations around that, but that’s not your corporate purpose.

When we were at Aetna we didn’t have a corporate purpose. We didn’t think about it. We were just doing our business. When you do that, you find yourself making decisions that in retrospect may not be the right ones. For example, protecting the financials of your shareholders and customers and ignoring the physicians and patients. They are the ones who really ought to be at the centerpiece of your thinking because you’re in the business of helping people get healthcare and being able to afford it. So if you really think about your corporate purpose, that can lead to a different mindset of how you run your business.

Do you think consumers can be skeptical of companies’ CSR and philanthropic initiatives. and what can companies do to make themselves seem more genuine?

Yes, I think sometimes businesses can be guilty of exploiting philanthropic initiatives. However, I think sometimes it’s handled really well. I’m a big fan of the “Like a Girl” campaign from P&G. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the purpose of the product, I mean the purpose of the product is feminine hygiene, but the idea that you do your campaign in a way that helps girls to think differently about themselves and their value and role in the world. I think that’s really admirable.

I can’t watch that “Like a Girl” campaign without thinking of my daughter and getting tears in my eyes. My daughter is 28 now, and my twin sons are 24. My daughter was the captain of her high school softball team and my boys played baseball the whole way through high school, but I never thought of playing catch with my daughter in the backyard when she was a little girl. She came to me one day when she was probably 20 or 21 with two photographs. One was me tossing a baseball to one of her brothers when he was about two years old, and one was of her at about the same age wearing a pink dress and standing next to a pink dollhouse. She said “Daddy, why?” And I think all of us need to learn that we’re all people, we’re all individuals and we should not put people in little boxes. So that’s why I love that campaign. “Throw like a girl” is a good thing, throwing like a girl is not pejorative. My daughter grew up to be a great softball player and she throws like an athlete.

I think people can generally tell when a campaign is authentic and when it’s not. It has to be authentic and genuine and create actual value in the world.

What do you think the role of philanthropy is for companies and how has its role evolved in the past few decades?

It should be, in my opinion, strategic, and align with a business purpose. At Aetna, our company had improving the healthcare system as part of its corporate purpose. That came from Jack Rowe, who was a doctor and our CEO, and we took stands on issues like disparities in healthcare.

There is a lot of research that shows that minorities get less good health care than majority populations in the United States. Jack and our company took a stand in favor of trying to eliminate those disparities. One of the things we decided to do in order to take on that issue is to begin collecting racial and ethnic identification from our members.

In order to do that, we had to ask them to voluntarily provide their racial and ethnic background when they applied for membership. We were concerned that people would be afraid to give an insurance company information like that because they would be afraid of being discriminated against, of having their rates raised or other action taken against them based on the data. In response, Jack made a public pledge that we would never use that data to discriminate against anyone.

We brought in a Wall Street Journal reporter to do an interview with him. They ran the story on page one, with Jack’s quote saying that it would be racist not to collect this data because we need it to attack the problem of healthcare disparities. So we began to fund programs with our corporate philanthropy dollars that would allow for research to tackle this issue and try to eliminate healthcare disparities.

That’s what I mean by aligning your philanthropy strategically with your corporate purpose.

This is part three of a three-part Q&A interview with Roger Bolton. Read previous posts here:

Post #1
Post #2