At a moment of unprecedented attention, investment, and opportunity for the emerging field of ESG, leaders are asking: Who is best preparing their organization for the society of the future? Who is innovating today to meet decades-long environmental and social goals? Who is setting standards that catalyze their industry’s change for the better? Who is defining what bold and aspirational look like — and how best to advance that work in practice? 

Enter NationSwell’s ESG Next, an exemplary group of investors, executives, authors, philanthropists, social sector leaders, academics, and field builders who are helping to shape business as a force for social and environmental progress, advancing — and even pioneering — the most forward-thinking and effective programs, initiatives, technologies, methodologies, practices, and approaches. 

For this installment, NationSwell interviewed Caitlin Morris, Vice President of Social + Community Impact at Nike, about this moment in ESG, the intertwining of people and planet, and the unique power of measurement not to gauge impact,  but actually facilitate it. 

Greg Behrman, CEO + Founder, NationSwell: How did your personal and professional journey to the field of ESG begin? 

Caitlin Morris, Vice President, Social + Community Impact, Nike: My journey to this field began almost by accident. I graduated from the University of Virginia during a recession, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next. I went to Hungary to teach English my first year out of school. 

My second year there, I worked for a consulting firm as the only native English speaker in the office, where I had some high-profile accounts. I specifically recall my secretary saving all her money to buy a pair of Levi’s, highlighting the power of American business as a force for good. But like any situation where you think you’re giving something, you get more than you give. I learned a lot from Hungarians about a diversity of worldviews, and about not taking things for granted.

After returning to the U.S. from Hungary, I worked at a consulting firm focused on capital markets development. I was drawn to the idea that we could make a difference by changing government structures to be more open and democratic through capitalism. My path was set early on, and it would eventually lead me to Nike. 

I joined Nike because of their first Community Impact report — it wasn’t because of Michael Jordan or any great sports moments, but because of the innovation they were driving around corporate responsibility. 

Behrman, NationSwell: How do you define this moment in ESG? 

Morris, Nike: I don’t really think ESG is a framework. It’s more of a collection of letters that roll nicely off the tongue. But the environmental piece of ESG is critically important, and at the same time, it often gets elevated over social without people recognizing the strong intersectionality between the two. 

I don’t disagree that we need sharp measurement on environmental factors, but people and the planet are two intertwined issues. If you don’t solve poverty and other challenges that communities are facing in their daily lives, we’re going to continue to make decisions that aren’t good for the planet. My team sits in social and community impact, so we lead with the people piece. That doesn’t mean we don’t see the intersectionality with the environment. It’s part of why we launched the Community Climate Resilience Fund, where we’re directly investing in intersectionality with the Trust for Public Land

My team has never been in more demand from the brand. Community used to be a “nice to have”; now it’s “table stakes” for companies. As you look at the Edelman Trust Barometer, consumers expect companies to solve problems more than they expect governments to. So, we have to have a clear point of view on which issues we take a stand on and how we’re addressing them. I feel proud that we have a team that can stick with long-term change around physical activity and supporting leaders who are working to address social justice issues. 

This moment in ESG brings so much excitement, but that excitement also brings challenges. Everyone grew up in a community, so the passion for thinking about the community component of social factors can feel quite outsized. That passion comes from an authentic and honest place, but it can be noisy, and the noise makes it difficult to maintain focus on the strategy, all while giving it enough space to

constantly evolve and emerge. The challenge is to balance the desire to keep people focused and to be flexible and responsive to current issues. 

Behrman, NationSwell: What are some initiatives you and your team are driving at Nike that you think are noteworthy, or that show promising signs of advancing the field? 

Morris, Nike: Nike has a mission, vision, and purpose — and the purpose part is relatively new for the company. This guiding principle has made our work central to the company’s operations, which is exciting. 

One of our most important initiatives began with a big framework: believing the world needed to understand the global cost of inactivity. We created Designed to Move, an advocacy play that we hoped would catalyze a movement around physical activity. For Designed to Move, the theory of change is supported by science. We collaborated with scientists to understand the various benefits that come from sports, and we learned that it’s a uniquely efficient investment — it pretty singularly combines physical literacy, emotional intelligence, and cognitive function. As the nexus of all of those things, it has been undervalued. 

So, for Designed to Move, our theory of change had two key focuses: one is integrating physical activity back into everyday life, the second is providing kids with early positive experiences in sports and play. 

At an individual level, it’s crucial to give children the ability, confidence, and desire to be active, as this sets them up for a lifetime of activity. The cycle is intergenerational — inactive adults are two times more likely to have inactive children. When we provide kids with positive early experiences in sports and play, they continue engaging in these activities. We began with a high-level macro approach, and then shifted to more programmatic work, testing innovations on the ground to gather proof points and inspirational stories. 

Another initiative I’d like to spotlight is the Nike Community Ambassador Program. This initiative excites me because it demonstrates the power of measurement and using the company’s full resources. The program involves training retail athletes to be coaches in local community organizations. What I love about this is that it was driven by insight. For instance, in Seattle, a group of Nike retailers were volunteering

at a school when the PE teacher left them in charge of 50 kids, assuming they could handle a PE class since they were associated with Nike. 

This experience highlighted the need for our teams to be better equipped as coaches in the field. The program began as a way to rally teams around the cause of getting kids active and walking our talk. We believe that quality trained coaches are critical to a child’s experience, so we can’t have untrained employees volunteering. What we didn’t expect was the incredible impact this program had on the employees and their connection to the brand. Some Nike employees may have grown up in the local Boys and Girls Club and now are returning to volunteer at a place that was meaningful to them. Others might have a master’s degree in sports science and are working retail because it was the available job. 

These employees didn’t necessarily see a future for themselves in retail, but now they’re able to use their knowledge and apply it in the community. This has unlocked a different reaction regarding their longevity with the brand. The program allows us to test our coaching materials, authentically engage with communities on a larger scale, and drive an employee engagement strategy that delivers returns to the brand. 

Behrman, NationSwell: How are you measuring and evaluating the success of your initiatives? 

Morris, Nike: Nike’s power lies in innovation and inspiration, and when we are at our best, we utilize the full power of the brand along with my team’s work on the ground. About seven years ago, we transitioned from a separate mission-based team to the company’s philanthropy center. As the company’s budget grew, so did ours, allowing us to do some exciting things. 

We’ve invested in digital tools for scaling our reach, providing resources such as coaching guides and inclusive coaching tools. We adopted a collective impact approach, focusing on local partnerships and place-based investment. This enables us to align our efforts on a city or neighborhood level and measure the impact of our work. I do think that this power of partnership at a local level is absolutely profound: You can’t get scale without first making a hyperlocal impact and measuring it properly.

Speaking of measurement, our increased budget gives us more tools to better measure our efficacy, ensuring our work is genuinely effective. With a smaller budget, you want to spend all your money doing good work. As your budget grows, you can be more honest about assessing your performance and asking, “Well, we’re doing it, but is it really working?” 

Effectively measuring our progress is new territory for us. We’ve been good at selling inspirational concepts and catalyzing movements, and now we’re prioritizing holding ourselves accountable by leveraging both internal and external tools to measure our reach. 

We’re also getting granular with measurement, even measuring the effectiveness of our tools. We’ve historically built things in partnership with experts and gained insights from users, and now we have experts examining how well our tools are being used. 

Behrman, NationSwell: To which leadership practices do you most attribute your success? 

Morris, Nike: Stakeholder engagement has been the connecting thread of my career. I make a dedicated effort to actively listen. Great leaders are excellent communicators, and communication starts with listening. That, for me, is probably my connecting thread and belief. People often ask why I stay at Nike. I stay because of our commitment to innovation and the people. I am fortunate to lead and partner with a team of 70 incredibly intelligent individuals, and my job as a leader is to be a multiplier for them, helping them do their best work. 

Behrman, NationSwell: Who are some leaders who inspire your work? 

Morris, Nike: My first choice is Shelly Omilade Bell, founder of Black Girl Ventures. Shelly is entrepreneurial, creative, and authentic in everything she does. She radiates energy and possesses the wisdom to lead her organization forward while recognizing that her role may need to change over time. It is not easy for founders to do this, and she is doing it brilliantly. 

Charlie Brown, CEO of Context Partners, also comes to mind. I’ve known Charlie for a long time and admire his work, starting at Ashoka, where the power lies in believing in individual game-changers. Charlie’s philosophy centers on the idea that no one achieves success on their own — we always do it in a community. I have learned a lot from Charlie, who has not been afraid to reinvent himself. As someone who has been consistent in my career, I am always impressed by people who take risks and change things up. 

Last but not least, there’s Maria Bobenrieth, CEO of Women Win. What I love about Maria is her constant joy. She has a saying, “Don’t get angry, get curious.” She leads with joy and innovation, changing how we support women and girls through sport. We have collaborated on our first participatory grant-making initiative outside of our employees: the ONSIDE Fund, funded by us and Puma. While there has been good collaboration on the labor rights side, there has been less collaboration on community impact. The Onside Fund and the participatory grant-making initiative, as well as the ability to co-fund with others in the industry, are fascinating. 

Alongside those leaders, I’ve also become a big podcast fan. I keep going back to “No Off Season,” a Nike podcast that features Megan Bartlett from the Center for Healing and Justice through Sport. I highly recommend it. 

To learn more about how our ESG Next honorees are shaping business as a force for social and environmental good, visit the series hub. Nike is a NationSwell Institutional Member. To learn more about membership in NationSwell’s community of leading social impact and sustainability practitioners, visit our site.