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Erin Baudo Felter and Sam Caplan

Breakthroughs in Social Impact: How Integrated CSR Unlocks Innovation

This episode of Impact Audio features Erin Baudo Felter, vice president of social impact and sustainability at Okta, breaking down what should actually be driving CSR programs.

Breakthroughs in Social Impact: How Integrated CSR Unlocks Innovation

26 MIN

Erin Baudo Felter, VP of social impact and sustainability at Okta, and Sam Caplan break down what should drive CSR programs.



At Okta, social good has been a priority since the beginning. But over time, the CSR team has shifted its understanding of what should drive these programs. It’s not just about taking the solutions the company has on hand and offering them to nonprofits. It’s about identifying the problems out in the world that Okta is uniquely positioned to help solve and then committing time and resources to run at them. 

This episode explores how to:

  • Identify your company’s superpower

  • Get grassroots support from employees

  • Take an ecosystem approach to supporting nonprofits 

  • Build integrated CSR programs around what communities need


Picture of your guest, Erin Baudo Felter

Erin Baudo Felter

Erin Baudo Felter is the Vice President of Social Impact and Sustainability at Okta and is responsible for leveraging Okta’s most important assets – its people, products and corporate resources – to create long-term value for people and the planet. Erin leads Okta’s cross-functional ESG function as well as Okta for Good, the company’s corporate social impact initiative. Her leadership includes Okta’s climate strategy; nonprofit business; strategic philanthropy; employee and community engagement; and emerging human rights efforts.

Erin has worked at the intersection of business and social impact for over 15 years and has held various corporate social impact roles at Zynga, Yahoo and Warner Bros. She holds an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and a BA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is personally passionate about equity, economic opportunity and empowering future leaders and serves on the advisory boards for GenesysWorks Bay Area and Connect Humanity. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two kids.

Picture of your guest, Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Inspired by the amazing work performed by grantmakers of all stripes, at Submittable, Sam strives to help them achieve their missions through better, more effective software. Sam has served as founder of New Spark Strategy, Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. Sam recently published a series of whitepapers with the Technology Association of Grantmakers titled “The Strategic Role of Technology in Philanthropy.”


Episode notes:


​​Look at something, anything.

Now shake your head back and forth.

Notice how your gaze sticks. Behind the scenes, your brain is keeping a delicate balance.

As your inner ear attracts Earth's gravity, your brain combines that information with what you're seeing to keep your gaze steady. The balance is what allows you to see while you're in motion, while you're walking or driving.

In the early 2000s, when the International Space Station opened, scientists noticed that the near-zero-gravity environment disrupted the balance between the astronauts' brains and eyes. And after landing back on earth, astronauts had problems with orientation and spatial perception that persisted for weeks.

To figure out why, NASA scientists developed a specialized helmet that could track astronauts' eye movements without hampering their work. And they confirmed gravity is inextricably linked to our ability to consistently perceive the world around us. But that knowledge wasn't all we gained.

The eye-tracking technology NASA used in that helmet is what allows doctors to do LASIK eye surgery today. Scientists sought to solve one problem. And in the end, they found their solution could do a whole lot more.

In essence, that's what many companies are realizing today, that the teams and products they've built can solve more problems than they were originally meant to. And they're using their resources to create social impact because corporate social responsibility is not just about giving money away. It's about finding that intersection between your strengths as a business and what communities actually need. That's where integrated CSR originates, from the idea that social impact must be woven strategically into a business mission.


Welcome to Impact Audio. I'm your host Sam Caplan, Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Today, we sit down with Erin Baudo Felter, Vice President of Social Impact and Sustainability at Okta.

She has helped her company embrace integrated CSR by leveraging their technology and people to go beyond solving business problems to address the big complex issues facing humanity. They've created Okta for Good, an initiative to mobilize their people, products, and dollars to drive long-term change. In doing so, she's developed a deeper understanding of how interconnected we all are. There's no clear line anymore between what's good for business and what's good for humanity. In fact, there's a lot of overlap.

In the past, I feel like a lot of employee engagement programs were really focused on what I would think of as the basics--

charitable giving and volunteering in the community and having the company enable that. And it's like that's the foundation and the core of everything we do, so that's still there.

I think what's really interesting is as companies have evolved and issues of the world have evolved, where there's this much tighter intersection between what's going on outside, what's going on inside--

think about the pandemic. You think about the racial justice reckoning of the last few years--

if you think about climate change, all this stuff is getting closer and closer together. You can't hide from it just because you're inside of a corporation.

And what it has done is opened up the awareness of more of our employees of how issues outside impact them. And it's opened up opportunity for them to bring that into their direct job roles. So for example, I'm thinking about I would consider the finance folks who are modeling our climate risk scenarios to be just as much of engaged in our impact work as I would as the sales leader who takes his team volunteering once a quarter.

You think about the folks on the investor relations team who are now having to speak to investors about ESG climate, DIB impact topics because it's coming up in those conversations. Like, they're extensions of this work as well in their day jobs. And it's coming more and more every day. So that feels really different and cool and exciting because, truly, this work is everybody's job inside of the company. And it's only going to increase, I think, in the years ahead.

With a deeper recognition of the interconnectivity of business and community, corporate social responsibility is fast becoming a necessity for any business that's looking to grow, enter new markets, or attract new talent or investors. And the pressure to invest in this work comes from every direction.

Those of us who do this work, the dream and the goal is always to be seen as a key integral business driver, not as this bolt on thing on the side, not as a nice to have, not as this optional item that's at odds with the business. And I think in the early days, we fought that a lot more. We fought that assumption a lot more that, like, oh, this is really not an essential part of the business.

I think one of the most dramatic things that I've seen change in almost 20 years doing this is that the criticality of impact work, of ESG work to the business is becoming clearer by the day. And in fact, just in the last two or three years, we've seen just a tremendous wave of that business case and those business drivers being made clear.

Specifically, in my experience the last few years, as a public company, we have investors asking us about our ESG work and our climate work.

We have customers of our technology asking us, before they sign the contract with us, to provide information about our DEI work, about our climate work, about our community work. And that stuff gets the attention inside the organization of senior leaders of the board to say, something is happening here. Something is happening here from these stakeholders that are pulling us.

All the new interest in CSR is great. But it doesn't mean much if companies pull back their support every time the market shifts. To make real sustained progress, every CSR professional should be thinking about the stickiness of their work as in, do the programs you create stick around when budgets tighten and priorities shift? Right now, a lot of CSR teams are being tested.

We're in an interesting time in that as we enter a contractionary period, in particular in technology companies right now, we are seeing certainly contraction and impact in ESG teams. But we are not yet seeing wholesale cutting of these teams as we have sometimes in the past, which I have personally experienced more than once in a downturn in the past in a tech company. So I think this is a really, really positive sign, not that, you know--

yes, I understand we're not seeing huge gains right now in some of these teams and the resourcing in them.

But the fact that they are sticking even when times are getting tough and hard decisions are being made says something really important. And what it says to me is that we've finally, as a field, reached the place, I think, I hope, where the business value of what we're doing is understood, and the need for it is enough to let it stick. And I think what we all should be thinking about as practitioners moving forward is not, you know--

some of it is like, how do we just keep the lights on and survive if things are going to be tough for a while? That's important.

But much more important is like, what is our vision, what is our big bold vision for what we need to get done as we come out of this period? And how do we make sure that we're setting up for that and investing in that now and laying the groundwork? And that's what gets me excited.

Though it's on CSR practitioners to lay out the vision for the future, employees are at the heart of these efforts. It's their passion and enthusiasm that will bring your work to life.

Historically at Okta, employees are really the driver of our social impact work, the drivers of it. And it's been that way since the beginning. Since before I got to the company to build Okta for Good, there were employees doing this work.

And that is not unique to Okta. That is the case in, certainly, all of our tech peer community, but even beyond that. We know that employees are the drivers of this work. And you can read any number of research reports talking about expectations of millennials, of Gen Z, of, really, everybody across the demographic spectrum that having an opportunity to connect to a higher purpose at work, to engage in direct social impact work in their jobs is what people are looking for, and it's super critical.

That grass roots employee engagement is key. But that doesn't happen without support from the top. Corporate leaders are the ones who need to make space for CSR programs to thrive. They're the ones who need to prioritize social impact first.

Our CEO and Co-Founder Todd McKinnon, if you ask him like, why--

who, by the way, is a huge champion of our social impact and ESG work, probably the first and best champion. But if you ask him like, why is this important to you, why is this a priority for you personally as you built the company, he will very clearly say that he wants Okta to be a place where people with big ideas come to solve big problems.

And in doing that, there has to be an understanding and a connection to the world outside of just the technology we're building.

And in his view, when you open the company up to solve these larger challenges of society and you give employees a chance to connect to that, actually, you're attracting the kind of workforce that you want, which is big thinkers, big doers. Let's go. And then you're keeping them engaged to stay.

So it's a really big core part of, I think, our CEO's leadership philosophy, the company's philosophy and then has, for my team, opened up this beautiful canvas for us to work on because we really can access all of our employees.

Hi. I'm Mark Pendolino, Director of Content at Submittable. We know that by nature, social impact is complex.

And on top of that, the pressure to get it right comes from every direction. If you work in CSR, you've probably got all sorts of people asking you for answers.

Where do you turn when you have a question? Well, we've created a library of resources to help you tackle the most unwieldy parts of doing this work.

It guides you through everything, from building grassroots support to measuring impact.

Check out our full collection at submittable.com/resources. Now back to the episode.

What we're seeing today is a seismic shift. Companies are redefining their role in society. They're taking it upon themselves to become agents of social change. That's huge.

But that transformation is only possible because of countless individual efforts. People who are doing the hard work to build coalitions, support grassroots movements, and inspire buy-in from leadership, it's those sustained efforts that lead to real, lasting change for communities. And as corporate teams look to create long-term impact, they're redefining how they measure success.

It's no longer about how closely they can tie each dollar of a donation to a dollar's worth of services. Instead, many teams are thinking bigger about how to create the conditions that support transformative change. Part of that effort is prioritizing innovation. Investing in innovation can feel risky. But by definition, it means you're trying something new and unproven. But that's the only way we're going to solve big complex problems.

Think of the scientists at NASA. Yes, they developed life-changing technology. But they were only able to do so because they had the resources to experiment and try new things and the infrastructure to support their work. Too often, that's what's missing for nonprofits.

Most people would say, oh, I want every penny of my donation to go out the door to program delivery, to the people on the ground, to the work that matters. And so we restrict our funding for nonprofits. And when we do that, we're basically not enabling that nonprofit to invest in its own infrastructure.

We're saying, the money has to go to the food. You hand out at the food bank, not to the computer system that makes all of the logistics run, or not to the staff that does the administrative tasks, or not to the building that you're working out of.

None of that infrastructure gets funded. It only goes out the door to "impact," quote unquote.

And what that does is it starves these organizations from the inside. It's actually a common thing in the nonprofit world called the nonprofit starvation cycle, where you literally are starving this organization from the inside. And so we started to see really quickly and talking to CIOs at nonprofits and technology leaders and nonprofits, like, when we do that, when we fund in that restricted way, we completely hamper a nonprofit's ability to invest in technology, because technology, by nature, is an infrastructure type of investment.

And so we started to get really excited about like, how could we help that? And how could we work more on that? And then we got excited, too, about, really, specific threats that the nonprofit sector is facing and where we can help specifically on cybersecurity.

In the last year, we announced $1 million investment philanthropically in nonprofit cybersecurity efforts because we know that, actually, nonprofits are one of the most targeted sectors of all of the sectors when it comes to security issues. And because of the reasons of challenges of funding infrastructure, they are some of the least able to fund and enable any ability to fight these threats because of how those things work.

So we are invested--

and this is work that will grow and continue. We're invested in an initial six grantees all around the world doing specific work to build capacity across civil society on cybersecurity issues.

This strategic approach to social impact didn't come out of nowhere. It came from Okta's recognition that social impact work is not static. It requires constant iteration and not just in small, incremental ways. CSR professionals have to be comfortable completely reimagining their work. For Erin and her team, this meant flipping their problem-solving strategy on its head.

So in the early days of Okta for Good, we organized our work and our strategy primarily around resources.

So if you think about the resource model of the Pledge 1% commitment, which we are a part of, you've got people, products, dollars. So you've got your employee give. You've got to give of products of some kind, and then you've got the financial contributions and the philanthropy.

So in the early days of the social impact work at the company, we organized it around that. So I had a small team. I had somebody doing employee engagement. I had somebody doing product philanthropy, essentially, donating, discounting our software for nonprofits.

And then I had somebody on the dollars part of it, which is philanthropy. And, actually, I didn't even have anybody. I was doing that part because we were so small. [LAUGHS]

And over the last, I would say, three years or so, as we've matured and as we say, like, these societal issues have really become more present, I would say, in our corporate lives and in our regular lives, we had to flip that whole thing around because it's like, what is the strategy if you're building it around resources? The strategy is just like get stuff out. That's not sufficient to tackle issues like climate change or issues like racial injustice and inequality or issues the pandemic.

So what we did is we looked at, OK, first, you have to understand who you are and what you do with any company. What are your core competencies? What are we strong in? What are our priorities? And how is this sort of engine of the company set up to address big challenges?

And then we looked at like, what are the societal issues that match to those where we feel like, oh, there's a societal issue where we have some opportunity to build a bridge and a linkage to that, either through resources or through expertise or through leadership of some kind? And then we evolved our strategy from there. And now today, what that means is we have three spheres of work on the team.

One is ESG and sustainability mapped to needs for climate action and just growing needs and expectations from our stakeholders around ESG disclosure and accountability, run your business responsibly. So that's one pillar. Another pillar is Tech for Good, which is our evolved name of our product philanthropy work.

And that's matched to the fact that that's our core business and product, so let's use it. And it's a security product. And it's a digital transformation product.

And so when you map that to the needs of the world, you very quickly see that, especially in the pandemic, the nonprofit sector has had a tremendous amount of change thrust upon it in terms of technology both challenges, but also, more importantly, opportunities around cybersecurity, around more efficiency, around remote work and remote service delivery. And so we want to turn Okta's technology, our team at least, toward that sector and make it as accessible as possible for them to use identity and security technology for their needs.

And then the third pillar is, like I said, the bread and butter of our world, which is what we call empowered employees and communities, which is looking at both the employee engagement, the philanthropy, but also the local community strengthening efforts that we do as we, as a global company, are expanding very rapidly around the world, which is a corporate priority.

So we did that work. We matched it all together. And I would say that's like v2 or v3 of our strategy. It will continue to evolve. But I think going from that build the strategy around the resources to build the strategy around the social issues you're best positioned to address was a big leap forward for us.

Framing a social impact strategy around what a community needs rather than what resources you have available requires humility. You might not have the answer to the problems right away. But if you're willing to dig in and do the work, you'll find the right path to leverage your strengths and resources in a way that makes a real difference. Taking this approach has led Okta to a problem they are uniquely positioned to solve.

We know that there's a billion people in this world that have no form of identification. And as an identity company, that is an issue that we are very interested in. Now, when it comes to what do we do about that, it becomes less clear.

And so what we are doing as Okta--

and we're always exploring that question. We've been involved in some different kind of collaborations and coalitions that are specifically looking at digital identity for more vulnerable populations and how to solve that billion-person problem.

But it's really tough. It's really tough from a governmental policy perspective, not to mention actually the technology perspective and issues of privacy and issues of security and issues of data handling.

And so it's like the biggest problem that we've fallen in love with that we don't yet see a clear path toward working on, is how I would describe it. What we are doing is looking at adjacent areas and adjacent issues where we feel like there's more ability for us to get in there, learn, have some traction today. So one I mentioned is this issue of cybersecurity for civil society in particular because the identities that civil society organizations are holding and protecting are of the most vulnerable.

And so we are spending a lot of time and effort on the security piece because that is something we can focus on today. It's a heavy serious need, and it puts us on a path to starting to look at and solve some of those bigger issues around digital identity.

Another thing we're doing is kind of cool, is we launched something called the Okta for Good Innovation Lab last year. And this is for the first time, we're basically wrapping donations of technology dollar, donate unrestricted grants and pro-bono tiger teams to come together with three different grantees who are all working on some kind of innovative application of identity technology to address an issue for a vulnerable population that they're serving.

So, again, it's not like quite to the level of digital identity per se. But for example, one of the projects is with a grantee called Tech Matters. They're building an open-source platform called Aselo that is essentially an open-source platform for child helplines around the world.

So governments and communities don't necessarily need to build their own child helpline from scratch. This is something that they can leverage and then build on top of. And there's lots of issues of identity and access, as you can imagine, related to who the children are, who are calling or texting in, and who the volunteers are that are communicating with them, and how the team on the back end is managing all of that.

So that's a cool example, I think, of a project we're really excited about, an application of our identity technology we're excited about that starts to just get us a little bit closer again to that bigger problem in the world.

Once you really dig into this work, you realize there's no single way for businesses to support nonprofits and community organizations. Instead, there are layers of opportunities. Integrated CSR is an approach that ties together a company's business mission and its investment in social impact. There's no one size fits all. It can look different depending on program mission and company resources.

There's two ways to think about what integrated CSR means. Or maybe there's more, but I can think of two right now. One is you have a program where as a technology company, where Okta gives product and money and people expertise to one organization to help them do something really different and cool.

That is really hard. That's actually really hard to do well in a technology context because the scoping of what that project is is so critical to ensuring that all those resources can actually come together and work properly. And that is why we have an innovation lab with only three grantees.

And we actually pushed out adding any more until we figure out if this model works.

But when it works, it's magic because it's like, of course, money on its own is fine. But what if you take your technology and the people who knew how to use it, and you help a nonprofit build something? That's super cool. So I think that's promising but hard.

The other way, and where we've, I think, maybe had more success in a bigger scale, is if you think about Okta's strategy around nonprofit technology enablement, we have an entire function of our team and company, really, that's working on deploying Okta's specific technology to nonprofit customers. Again, we have thousands of customers around the world. We gave away $5 million in technology and services last year.

And we have one-to-one relationships with all of those organizations to some degree.

That's our ability to impact the sector in a one-to-one way. And we're really working with, I would say, the tip of the spear probably most innovative most tech forward nonprofits in that way, because if they weren't, they may not even understand or know how they would use Okta. So that's a really interesting customer learning lens.

Then we layer on top of that our grant making.

So we have our three-year Nonprofit Technology Initiative. We've given away millions of dollars in grants to support broader tech adoption across the social sector. That's a one-to-many approach.

So we're giving to ecosystem players like NTEN, like NetHope, like TechSoup, like Fast Forward. So these organizations that are working really at the ecosystem level of where nonprofits and technology meet. And so when you put those two things together the one-to-one relationships through our product donation program with our customers, plus these relationships with these broader ecosystem players across our philanthropy, that's an integrated approach, too, because altogether, that's how we get all the insights.

Thanks for listening. We hope this inspires you to see your work through a new lens and consider what hidden forces shape your perception of the world. To hear more conversations like this, be sure to subscribe to <i>Impact</i> <i>Audio</i> and stay tuned for more details about our Impact Studio Conference coming this fall. Until next time.


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