Transcript:

Alistair Jessiman

I'm honored to introduce our first speaker Anna Isaacson, Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility with the National Football League. If you tune into television on Sundays you've -- or many other days during the week, you've probably seen the numerous programs and initiatives the NFL drives with respect to social responsibility. Anna is directly responsible for those programs and initiatives and has been since 2015.

She joined the NFL in 2006, has held various leadership positions from the NFL's Community Relations and philanthropic efforts. And she also oversees the work of the NFL Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of those touched by the game of football. So I'd like to start right off, Anna, with just probably a little bit of a background kind of question. The NFL and NFL Foundation Fund support league-wide initiatives aimed at making a big difference in communities across the nation. Before we talk about any of those programs individually, can you tell us a little bit more about why social responsibility is important to the NFL?

 Anna Isaacson

I can. And first, thank you for having me today. It's -- It's an honor to be here with all of you. I would say that really community relations, we didn't call it social responsibility back then. But for the 102-year history of the NFL community and giving back has really been a huge part of our company. I think that comes from our roots, we are driven by our fans, we have always felt a great responsibility to give back to the fans who really sustain us, right? We would be nothing without fans coming to our stadiums, rooting for our teams, cheering for our players, buying merchandise, buying tickets.

And so, as a cultural institution, which, you know, we are lucky to be one, we feel that we have a responsibility to give back. And that runs deep. Commissioner Tagliabue, who was commissioner prior to Commissioner Goodell, used to say all the time, that football and community were the twin pillars of the NFL, and he put them on equal footing, which is pretty unbelievable. And Commissioner Goodell really lives by that motto as well. And you know, I think it's a real -- it's really integral to everything that we're doing at the NFL, for many reasons. And I think that is even -- that has even grown, I would say over the last decade, but it has been around for a long time, we can trace a lot of our programs back decades, you know, back into the 50s and 60s.

Alistair Jessiman

Thank you. So maybe now thinking about -- from that's where you started and how is it -- how has social responsibility at the NFL evolved? Since you first got into the -- into this in 2016? Because I know there's lots of changes that have happened and are now ongoing. So, talk a little bit about the trajectory here.

Anna Isaacson

Yeah, you know, when I started in 2006, community relations was part of the communications team, so we were part of PR. And I think the reason for that, and it may be obvious, but it was that if you do community events, it's going to give you good PR, right?

And so, let's put community relations within the PR department. And we'll get good press for doing hospital visits and talking to kids. And some of the more I would say important things, but somewhat superficial work. And that's what we did for many years. And when I started in 2006, we were a tiny group. I wouldn't even say department because again, we were in the communications department. We didn't have a standalone budget. We were -- there were probably three of us. Maybe at our peak, there were four. But over time, pretty quickly, you know, the word "CSR" started becoming more defined, I would say, right? People started understanding what corporate social responsibility was around that time, sort of buzzword started coming, you know, coming out not only in the sports industry, but in other industries.

And, you know, I think that we -- we started to evolve along those lines, as well. And really think about how we could take a more strategic approach to giving back and not just do kind of more one-off events or moments that again, were a little bit more superficial, right, we wanted to start thinking about what are issues that are really impacting society that the NFL can take a leadership role in? And at that time, you know, my role started to adjust. And I started to make the case with our leadership, to be honest that there was value in this, right. There was value for the NFL in doing more and being strategic and being seen as a leader on social issues.

Alistair Jessiman

Where are you now?

Anna Isaacson

In 2018, like you said, launched Inspire Change, which is really -- stands for our social justice work. But it's really a campaign about breaking down barriers to opportunity and opening up access for all. And we've chosen to focus on four key areas. Social justice is actually pretty broad. And people define it in many different ways. We've chosen to define it under four pillars, and those are education, economic advancement, criminal justice reform, and police and community relations. And so, we -- we focus on public policy reform, grant making across the country, large grant, small grants, we also use our big platform to share messages and important messages about breaking down barriers and about how, you know, it's really an acknowledgement of how racism has impacted our society over time.

And then, so we were doing that for a couple of years, and then the murder of George Floyd happen, and we were -- again, we took a step back, and, you know, had to be really I would say, self-reflective in that moment, because we were internally sort of in a bubble saying, well, we've been doing social justice work, you know, since 2017. And we kind of have, you know, a plan and we know what we're doing, and then it actually really hit us that no, we actually weren't doing enough. We thought we were doing a lot, we weren't actually doing enough and to boot we weren't communicating effectively, so that our players and our fans knew what we were doing.

And so, we made a commitment in 2020, to really expand, Inspire Change and expand what we were doing. And not only was that a financial commitment, where we said, we're going to make sure that we're investing $250 million over a 10-year period into social justice causes. But we're really going to turn the lights on this issue all year, every day, we're going to use our owned and operated platforms, we have nfl.com, the NFL Network, we have partners, organizations, and we're going to use every asset available to us as the NFL to shine a spotlight on these issues, and to support the work that players are doing in the community. And so, I would say that was really the biggest change in 2020, with how Inspire Change came to life.

And then you'll see that -- if you watch football, you'll see that, you know, this comes to life in the stadium, on field. Through commercials, we've had Super Bowl commercials around Inspire Change. This was the first year we had sideline gear that players were able to wear, it's the first time we had a dedicated -- each club had a dedicated home game, to highlight their social justice initiatives in their local markets. And then we basically used our broadcast partners to highlight all of that work that was going on, right, we had stencils in the end zone that said end racism. And so, we employed basically every asset and every available opportunity that we had to bring this to life, to not only educate fans around what social justice really is, but then also to highlight the work of these amazing grant partners that we have, and give them more of the stage so they can hopefully raise more money and do more work and make a bigger impact. So that I mean, it's a pretty --it's been an evolution, it's hard to believe it's been so many years now since we actually launched, but Inspire Change is -- I would say is now grown into our most significant platform and cause.

Alistair Jessiman

Interesting, so not just an evolution, but a continued expansion in many different ways. It sounds like.

Anna Isaacson

I mean, yes, right. I think our players who have been at the forefront of this have told us that this is, you know, this is important to them. And then we've done research that says this is important to our fans. And you know, when --- I would say when, you know, when we first started this journey, and I'll call it a journey,

which one we're still -- we're still on, you know, there was a lot of opinions around where do you go? Where does -- where should the NFL be in social justice? Where should we put a stake in the ground? How do we do this in a way that's bipartisan, or, you know, that's apolitical and, you know, it took some time to, you know, get our sea legs under us and really figure out where we wanted to be.

But I think what we -- a key learning for all of us was that we'd really been doing social justice work for decades. We just hadn't called it social justice. We've been working on breaking down barriers to opportunity. We had been working on getting access to underserved communities. We've been working with young people and making sure that they can reach their full potential, right. All these things that the NFL, our 32 clubs, players do all the time. We've been doing it. We hadn't classified it as social justice and so we got more intentional in general, and we got more specific and detailed. But we realized that there is a real place for the NFL in this work that is authentic to us and who we are.

Alistair Jessiman

You know, you've mentioned a couple of times, kind of the players and their voice. And but I noted that in our -- and I know in our meetings, my meetings, I was actually in Boston last week and sat down with one of our clients. And one of the questions that came up is something I know you guys have been involved as well, which is, they were asking, you know, how can our employees get directly involved, in addition to you know, bringing their voice to the -- to the enterprise and asking for an influence and to drive -- I know, you know, the overall things that you're doing from sort of the center, I know, in your case at the NFL, as part of that 250 million commitment for social justice, you -- over the next 10 years, I think that includes over 1800 grants provided by the foundation, to players and legends, to provide assets or money or resources to nonprofits of their choice. So, they're trying to -- trying to reach out and have them be able to take a direct act, as well as that. Talk a little bit more about that, because I've heard a lot as I said, last week, and even the week before, when I was down in Atlanta heard the same thing that there's this -- there's this need to kind of help our employees take action.

Anna Isaacson

Yeah, I would say that social justice work in particular, but a lot of other causes as well that we focus on are really player driven. That means that they -- we are constantly asking them and surveying them about what they are looking for and what they want to see the NFL doing, what they want to see us focusing on. We keep them in the loop on all of our programs. We've got a social justice committee of players and owners. And they work together to make grants, right. We have programs that we make available for players, we have joint player and club programs.

And I think what we've found over time is that we are stronger as an organization, when everybody is working in unison. So, when we're all -- when we have one, you know, common goal and we're going after it, whether that's our players or you know, in a union, or that's league employees, or coaches, or ownership, when we join together, we are incredibly powerful. And I will add to that, you know, in a post 2020 world, our employees, you know, our NFL staffers as well, I think our employees really spoke up over the last two years and said that we have a stake in this too, we want to be ambassadors for the NFL as well, we want you to hear our voice when you're deciding what you want to stand for, and what we want to go out there with our messaging. And so we've become much more intentional, not only with our player population, but with our own staff. And, you know, having really robust employee resource groups, I think has come -- come into play much more -- much more regularly over the last two years. When we're planning things around Pride Month, for example, working with our employee resource group, our Pride group, and right now, we're, you know, we're working with our Apex group on AAPI Awareness Month, right. And I think thinking through how our employees can be engaged with the work that we are doing publicly, we're no longer like separating as much what we're doing internally, to what we're doing externally from a societal standpoint, right? It's kind of all has to be working in unison to be as I would say, successful and as efficient and impactful as possible.

And so I think, more than ever, we are really thinking through -- and it's hard, right, because sometimes you just want to go forward with an idea, but we are now in a position where we're really trying to like, check off did we -- have we communicated with all the right stakeholders, before we make decisions on something that's going to impact them, right? And I think we didn't always do that. And sometimes it probably hurt us in several ways. And now it's a much more regular part of our process.

Alistair Jessiman

So thinking -- oh, thank you -- thinking along those lines, and I know you all obviously, as part of the players, they are back in the stadiums, and they were the whole time. And you I think are also back in your offices after very probably a briefer wait time than many of us. How -- how has the pandemic impacted what you're doing and not just in the social justice but broader across the whole world that the foundation, all the pieces that you're touching, have you seen the kinds of things that you want to have an impact on, changed or evolved from the pandemic itself, or the ways in which you can, you know, organize to -- to impact those?

Anna Isaacson

I mean, dramatically, I think this -- I remember saying to our team, early on in the pandemic, that this was sort of like, uncharted territory for us, because we're used to taking on an issue that impacts a specific group, or groups. But this was the first time we had an issue that like literally impacted every single person in every single industry. And, frankly, it was overwhelming, because we had so many partners and so many nonprofits, coming to us to say what -- like, we need help, what do we do, whether that was, you know, our cancer work, our military population, social justice of course, domestic violence survivors, like it was really overwhelming. And I think we took a stand early on, I mean, I know there were other -- not everybody was able to do this, we were fortunate enough to be able to say, we're not going to pull back on our charity work. Even though times are tough, we're going to keep plowing ahead and keep -- keep the focus on our community partners, because they're the ones who are really struggling and people were pulling back dollars left and right.

We also sort of took the approach that we were going to be more flexible with our grants. And so we basically went back to all of our major grant partners, and said to them, tell us how your business is evolving. Tell us if you need to switch around some of the ways you use our money. We know you had a -- you know a scope of work, and we had an agreement. But if you need to change and you need to pivot, tell us, and we'll be flexible in how you kind of go forward. And so we did that. We also did, of course, a ton of disaster relief work, millions of dollars in grants to organizations that are making an impact today on pandemic relief.

But so it really was -- it's what changed all of our plans, of course, for two years and sort of shifted the direction pretty dramatically, as related to Inspire Change, we really started focusing on bridging the digital divide, which, of course, was an issue way before the pandemic, but was really exacerbated by the pandemic, specifically, we focused on young people and on really bridging that homework gap and trying to get kids access to technology so that they didn't fall behind in school, and had to educate their families on how to use that technology and Wi-Fi access and broadband and all these things that started you know, popping up, I would say in more regular cadence because of COVID and because of the pandemic.

And I still think we're seeing those effects now. We're still in a mode where we're being flexible with partners, and giving people time to sort of get back on, you know, get their feet back on the ground and get settled and get their metrics back up in place. And so it's been -- it's been challenging, but I would say I felt pretty fortunate to be sitting in this chair, able to continue helping, and able to really still be a support for these organizations and these causes that we stand behind, we were able to sort of quietly make emergency grants to domestic violence shelters across the country, right, and not necessarily things for public awareness. But just like, a lot of people didn't have the resources to do that. And we were fortunate to be able to kind of fill gaps. And that's what we tried to do.

Alistair Jessiman

You've talked about so many different areas, as you said, I thought it was very -- it's a terrific statement that you're dealing with America here, right? You're dealing with all the pieces that impact our society because of just the nature of your -- your organization, your -- your -- your business and all that you're doing. One we haven't talked about a lot so far in this call is the environmental side of it. And I wonder if you could just comment there, whether it's from the you know -- it's certainly been something when we look across that survey I mentioned, social -- the two big ones that popped across every nonprofit, every for-profit organization, were the social justice and the environment and so since I know there's a lot of interest in that I wondered if you had -- how you've evolved your thinking there. And how -- I mean, broadly speaking, is the NFL.

Anna Isaacson

Yeah, we know -- we -- we've had a sustainability platform for about 30 years. But that has been mostly focused on our big events. And mostly that means Super Bowl. So we've had a real focus on Super Bowl. And we've looked at it from sort of two perspectives, from the operational standpoint of, you know, environmental work and sustainability, and thinking about recycling programs and carbon offsets and plastic reduction, and waste diversion. And then we think about it also from a community side, when we're talking about food recovery, and working with nonprofits on food recovery, certainly recycling events, but community greening tree plantings, building community gardens, with healthy food. So we kind of think about it, twofold, the sort of the operations of our business and our events, and then the community engagement pieces of that and they overlap, right, they intersect.

We've since then, taken on, you know, some -- as our events have grown. So as the Pro Bowl has grown, and draft has grown and kickoff, we have brought our Super Bowl program to those events, I would say where we are now is a really interesting point where we are -- and we haven't done this to date, but we're actually working on it, is thinking about coming up with best practices across our 32 clubs and the league, and setting some sustainability goals for the NFL, that each of our organizations are striving to achieve together. So again, to that point of sort of doing things together and in unison makes us stronger. One thing that we're looking to do going forward is really to set those key goals, not just like one team setting goals, but the whole league, you know, striving to achieve something in the sustainability space, and then being able to really confront that, you know, as 32 plus our league, so 33, really, together.

You know, we've been able to do some innovative projects. We've -- we've had -- two of the last three Super Bowls have been in Florida, and so we were able to do these really amazing coral reef restoration projects tied to the Super Bowl, and having a big platform allows you to talk about that stuff in a way that people hear it and they listen. But I think more and more, you know, it's -- it's been coming up more and more in organization is not only from the community and the event side, but how do we really think about sustainability across our entire business, I think that's where this idea of coming up with a couple of two to three, even just key, you know, metrics or goals that we're going to all try to achieve, you know, whether it's something on the plastic side or otherwise, for our stadiums thinking through that. So that's where we are, I would say again, we are lucky that we've had a program for a couple of decades, but it's consistently and constantly evolving and growing.

Alistair Jessiman

One of the things you just mentioned is so interesting about, again, you said it several different ways the --the 32 plus one, you've already got a complex situation where lots of different organizations, but also you're in the community you're in -- you exist in the communities you serve. And how is that kind of -- is there a one plus one equals three there between the communities and some of the things they're doing and some of the things that 32 plus one are doing and how do you make that work well? How does it end up being one plus one equals three? Or how can it, and maybe where didn't it or where -- where does it struggle, if you know what I mean.

Anna Isaacson

Yeah, I think -- I think everyone has a role. I think we as the NFL, we -- we see ourselves as part of a solution normally but not as the entire solution to issues. You know, we are the National Football League, we play football, right? We -- football it's -- it's who we are and what we do and what we're really experts in. And we rely on experts, real experts, subject matter experts to tell us how to do cause and societal work, right. You know, my job to head up social responsibility for the NFL is not to necessarily be a subject matter expert in any particular cause. But it is to be able to know how to use the NFL and everything we bring to the table to impact many different causes and to learn and understand enough to make the right decisions and to partner with the right organizations to make societal change.

So that means that people have to come to the table, you know, and so it could be that the NFL is a good convener because people want to work with the NFL because of our platform, and because they love football, but not necessarily as the expert in any space, so we do a lot of convening and a lot of bringing people together and a lot of encouraging and promoting and marketing and awareness, and hoping and prodding for others to come to the table who can actually, you know, make real impact on the ground. You know, and I think that takes everyone I mean, we had our sort of mantra the last two years has been, it takes all of us. And that is, you know, incredibly true, especially in these really challenging times that we found ourselves in is, we want to have a role, we want a seat at the table, we want to make an impact. But we know that we can't do it alone. And we know what we're good at. And we know what other organizations are good at. And we'll never claim to be experts in something that we are, we are most certainly not.

Alistair Jessiman

And is part of that just to follow on a sense of activating the community or being -- helping the community activate itself beyond the expert piece of it, and finding those experts is there a piece where in the local communities you serve around the stadiums or in broadly -- more broader geographically that communities need some leadership there too or you need to find those leaders in the community to kind of help the community engage around you?

Anna Isaacson

I mean, certainly every community is different, right. And every -- every club is in a market that has different needs, and different issues that are at the forefront. And I would say what we try to do is be real partners for organizations. So we don't like to just cut a big check and walk away. We like to dive in and build a relationship and offer additional things besides financial resources. And sometimes that's strategic counseling and guidance and pro bono work on branding and communications to enable organizations to reach their potential. And, you know, it depends on what organization, what the need is. But I think we're -- again we are -- we find ourselves in a fortunate position where we can pull from a lot of different levers and resources to help some of these small organizations or these nonprofits get to where they want to go, and to use -- rely on us to give them strategic counsel and advice. Right.

And, you know, there's a couple of  examples of those quickly, but we just formed a multiyear, multimillion dollar agreement with the National Council on Problem Gambling, NCPG, which, you know, if you know, a little -- if you're following around sports betting and how that's opening up, you know, they are -- they are the leading organization in the country on -- on problem gambling, and they were like a team of seven. Right? And, you know, we -- we were in a position to say, listen, the NFL is now part of this business. We met with them over several months and said, like, let's work together to some -- to make you guys more robust, and what do you need to really take it to the next level, and we were able to come to sort of a real partnership with them to, you know, extend their reach, and to organize the field, and to extend grants for innovative programs, and build up their communications and their helpline in a way that they may not have been able to do if there wasn't sort of a company or a corporation of our size willing to kind of sit with them and work through this.

Alistair Jessiman

Interesting. So interesting. One thing I wanted to get to before we kind of -- there are a couple of questions that we've gotten in that are sort of more helping us understand the impact on the NFL on your business and -- and your reputation and so on. But one I know that a lot of our -- our participants here and many of the companies that I've been meeting with in the last few weeks, in particular is something that is the -- you've called or the -- the organization is called the digital divide. And -- and how do you -- how do you make an impact there in terms of not just pandemic related but more broader than that? Tell us a little bit about that, because I think that'll be really helpful for folks on -- on the -- in the call here to sort of understand how that has -- how you framed that or how that has come to be framed.

Anna Isaacson

Yeah, we thought about it in sort of three areas really, sort of like hard equipment. We thought about as broadband and Wi-Fi, and we thought about it from education. And -- because you could have all the equipment and all the connectivity that you want, but if no one knows how to use a phone or a laptop, you can't learn anything. And I think what we -- what we really dug into there was that this is an issue that's been impacting families and communities, both urban and rural, for a long time, that the pandemic really made it so much worse. And that there really aren't a ton of organizations nationally that are doing the work.

And so what we've done is a couple of things, we've offered our club's grant money from the NFL foundation, so that they can partner locally with organizations in their backyards, to figure out how to bridge the digital divide in a custom way for their city. We've also partnered with the government to help market and advertise their, you know, they had a new broadband offering. And, you know, so we were one of the few, maybe the only organization that basically put together a PSA and used our channels to sort of tell people how to go sign up for this broadband benefit.  And, you know, to make sure that people had access to things that they now know didn't have to pay for.

And then we've also sort of brought this to every one of our big events. You know, we've -- we've hosted an event in a local community -- community center. We were just at the Boys and Girls Clubs in Southern Nevada, talking to them about what their needs are, and funding those -- those needs, and then promoting that publicly so other people understand what the digital divide means. And how important it is to kids, whether they're now back in school in person or not, right, is, you know, they're still going home and needing access to do their homework and to get their studies done and to reach their full potential. And I think it'll be an issue that we're in -- we're in for, you know, for -- for the long haul to be honest.

Alistair Jessiman

Well, I think we have time for one more question. I have more than one, but I think we should probably give you back the rest of your day. But one question I really wanted to ask is -- I think we all would like to know, after what is really inspiring sort of thoughts of comments, Anna, is, what are the biggest challenges, what keeps you motivated in this job? You've been through a full journey, talk about that. But you seem to have just as much energy or even more energy, maybe then you did the beginning. With all that change, and all that opportunity how does this kind of show up for you? How do you -- how do you provide the leadership?

Anna Isaacson

Yeah, I mean, listen, the challenges are, are many, and they're not going anywhere, you know. For us, we are-I said this -- I referenced this, but you know, we're a big organization, and we've got fans that represent essentially the census of the country. And that means red states and blue states and everything in between. And sometimes we don't make people happy. And sometimes we make mistakes. And we have challenges. And, you know, when you -- when you have sort of a megaphone, and a huge platform that also comes with a big microscope that we're under, right, and people looking really closely at the decisions that we make and why we make them. And so I think you know that those are challenges that aren't going anywhere. And they sometimes keep me up at night. And you know, I question sometimes, like we're doing good work, why is it so difficult.

But then, you know, on the motivating side, what keeps me going and energized and passionate is that we do have this unbelievable platform to give back, right? And when you're sitting in my seat or our team's seat, you actually get to see the impact that you're making on people's lives regularly. People are so passionate about sports and about the NFL and their teams and the players. And they -- it's so motivating for them that it's motivating to us to be able to use our platform to help, right, and that comes to life in lots of different ways. Right? It comes to life, you know, whether it comes to life in the survey data, we get back that it says okay, our fans -- our fans care about the NFL more because they see that we're socially responsible, or they think more positively about the NFL, because we're doing work to support our military. Right. Those are -- those are stats and data points we get back. But what really moves me is like the stories, right, the impact stories that we hear that I can see myself I -- you know.

I'll leave you with this I -- we launched our breast cancer campaign Official Catch in 2009. And we weren't the first people to do pink, certainly not. But we were able to do it in a unique and different way. And when people saw NFL players wearing pink, something happened, and I was -- I spent a lot of time years ago in Cleveland and I was driving around Cleveland one Friday night and I actually passed by a football -- high school football field and I looked over and the players and cheerleaders were all wearing pink. And I actually pulled my car around, I went into the parking lot, and I asked if I could sort of go into the stadium and -- and ask questions and said like, you guys are wearing pink like how did that happen? And it sort of in that moment occurred to me that what we had been doing on a national stage for the NFL had trickled down to young people and youth across the country and they wanted to model themselves and emulate NFL players. And they did. And in doing so they were understanding the importance of getting screened for cancer and talking to their family members. And that was one of the powerful -- most powerful moments I had in this job, right. And those are the moments that keep me energized and keep me going. Because I can see it firsthand that I can see that impact. And it's -- it's -- it's pretty extraordinary.

Alistair Jessiman

What a great story. Anna, thanks for sharing that with us. And thanks so much for sharing 45 minutes. Great conversation. I know from all the conversations I've been having, we've all been having, you know, many of us are thinking through the same things. It's wonderful to hear you on -- on the journey that you've taken, as well as that the NFL has taken and is continuing to take. So, thank you so much for your time and energy. We really appreciate it.

Anna Isaacson

Thank you for having me. It's been great.