File: Salesforce Founder, Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff speaks onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt at Pier 48 on September 9, 2014 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

On Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) signed into law the "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," which will ban state and local governments from putting a "substantial burden" on a person's free exercise of religion. Many opponents are concerned that in practice, it could open the door to discrimination, providing legal grounds for businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons.

One of those opponents is Marc Benioff, the outspoken CEO of San Francisco-based cloud-computing giant Salesforce.com. Over the past couple of days, Benioff's Twitter feed has been an all-out campaign against the new law, with threats to "dramatically reduce" the company's investment in the state, calls for other tech CEOs and tech industry leaders to vocally oppose the measure, applause for those tech leaders who have come out against it, and ultimately, a decision to cancel all Salesforce programs that would require the company's employees or customers to travel to Indiana.

Benioff isn't the only leader to weigh in on the debate, though so far, he appears to be the heavyweight among corporate chiefs who've spoken out.

Mark Emmert, who is president of the Indianapolis-based NCAA, where next week's Final Four men's basketball games will take place, issued a statement of concern Thursday. In it, he said the college athletics organization is "especially concerned" about the potential impact of the legislation, saying it will "closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce." San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee issued his own protest, saying he was forbidding city employees from using public funds to travel to Indiana unless there was a public health or safety issue.

And a few other business leaders have taken a stand against the measure. Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman wrote in an "open letter" to states considering similar legislation that "Yelp will make every effort to expand its corporate presence only in states that do not have these laws allowing for discrimination on the books." He pointedly called out Arkansas, where a similar bill is advancing in the state legislation. Other local companies have reportedly spoken out about the issue, as many did when Arizona weighed a similar law, which was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer (R).

Benioff's last-minute letter on the issue didn't stop the bill from becoming law. But his actions are the kind of CEO activism that could ultimately have a big impact.

For one, the company's longstanding commitment to giving back and to social causes helps his campaign come off as credible, rather than some kind of P.R. effort, which could prompt more business leaders to follow suit. Last year, he made a threat to withdraw business in Arizona, too, tweeting "If this bill passes we will never do another corporate event in Arizona. Good bye and - my two favorites!" 

Through the company's foundation, Salesforce gives one percent of its equity, employees' time, and profit in the form of product donations back to nonprofits and community organizations and encourages others to do the same. Benioff has written two books on "compassionate capitalism" and corporate philanthropy.

Moreover, CEO activism that puts real investment at stake has the best chance at being effective. CEOs who want to make an impact on social issues can launch all the fuzzy ad campaigns or hashtag conversations they want. They can make lofty speeches, sit on do-gooder panels, and conduct interviews on pet causes. But putting real money at risk--in terms of expanding business in the state, bringing travel and events there, and investing in local jobs--is the kind of leverage CEOs have unlike few others, and the kind that should ultimately make the most impact.

Read also:

Corporate America's gay rights evolution

Indiana's 'religious freedom' bill and the ghost of Hobby Lobby

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