THE BLOG

Britain's Businesses Must Answer the Call of Their Communities

31/05/2013 16:46 BST | Updated 30/07/2013 10:12 BST

We are on the edge of a societal crisis. A recent newspaper survey of 81 councils revealed how slashed budgets across the country would see the reduction, and in some cases disappearance, of arts and sports budgets, youth centres and support for vulnerable people.

The report quoted Nick Forbes, leader of Labour-controlled Newcastle council, who said he was 'filled with horror' and further cuts 'will bring local government to its knees'.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are no shortage of stats and facts to highlight just what dire straits we are in. Food banks are feeding triple the number of people they were two years ago. Homelessness is rapidly increasing, with rough sleeping up 40% in some cities, and it has been estimated that 1 in 6 charities may have to close this year. Increasing social isolation and economic insecurity have caused a rise in mental health problems just as counselling services have been cut for the first time in a decade.

If the Government is far from having all the answers this country needs, and the pillars that we have historically stood on as the backbone of our communities are dwindling by the day, then it is down to another element of society to step up and take on a new role - businesses. Businesses have an opportunity and a duty to respond with all the help they can offer.

Here are some stats from a survey we recently conducted amongst around 1,000 respondents, in conjunction with ResearchBods. Less than 1 in 10 British people consider the contribution of businesses to their communities as being 'very good' or 'excellent' - 37% feel it is poor, while 54% judge it to be average. A resounding 60% say businesses should increase their involvement in community life.

There are rewards to be reaped for businesses that respond to the call, showing that share of wallet can still be commanded by ethics and conscience, not just price. 97% say they would think more positively of a business that got more involved in their community and 54% say they would be more likely to buy products or services from such a business. In addition, countless case histories show that energetic and well-focused social action makes employees more loyal, motivated and productive.

This comment from one of our respondents says it all: "I would see that they are not just faceless corporations but that they actually want to put something back into the country, into communities, that they care about communities which are less well off, even if they are unlikely to be potential customers or big spending customers."

"Corporate Social Responsibility" as a term, whilst well intentioned, deadens the soul and is now outmoded.

The word "corporate" suggests something slow and cumbersome. More importantly, "corporate" suggests that the "responsibility" in question belongs predominantly to those in headquarters buildings, in Corporate Affairs, and is about managing reputation with external shareholders through media such as Annual Reports and AGM's. It does not suggest what it should: a common purpose that binds and energises all stakeholders in a business.

"Responsibility" is very worthy and principled, but sounds like a burden. It is a "must do" rather than "want to do" word. What it misses is the energy, productivity and savings that pursuing environmental and social goals delivers to a business.

CSR in its current form has hit a glass ceiling. It typically means that a company nominates a few charities to support every year; gives employees one to two days a year to do volunteering; possibly has a payroll giving scheme and is generally responding to the now unavoidable need to reduce pollution and waste and to use sustainable materials.

Citizens and communities will need to be more creative with scant resource. Businesses therefore need to commit more resources - which could be time, skills, venues, land as well as money - to the communities where they are based, in line with the needs and priorities of local people.

Your Square Mile is already working in this way with Heineken, in three areas where they are a significant local employer: the brewery communities of Moss Side, Ledbury and Tadcaster. We have used a set of proprietary processes that we have refined and strengthened over two years, ranging from rigorous analysis of community needs; mapping of all local assets; workshops that mix activists with a wide range of the excluded and vulnerable; a sophisticated platform for hyperlocal web-sites; brainstorming and voting on local projects; and support of local projects through to self-sufficiency.

Heineken employees are matched to projects that answer pressing local needs and match their skills and interests. Heineken have found that the partnership is enabling them to become a more active part of their communities, and that, as a significant local employer, they have the potential to make a real impact.

While Heineken is a fine example, other brands to be commended for their new local focus include:

• Dulux and its "Let's Colour" scheme, donating paint to re-decorate eyesore or community buildings.

• IBM and "Smarter Cities", using its core technology and consultancy expertise to make cities work more efficiently, including public services.

• O2's Think Big scheme for young social entrepreneurs. They give small grants to community projects started by people aged 13-25.

• Nationwide, who is aiming to invest £15m in communities by 2017 all directed by their customers and employees.

Our survey results provide realistic suggestions to businesses of the kinds of activities people would like to see them support locally. The top services, which 88% of respondents voted on as being appropriate for a business to provide to a charity or community organisation, were marketing and communications support and assistance with IT, accounting and legal issues.

Particular services that respondents said businesses could both credibly provide and are a priority for communities, are venues, space and land for community projects; volunteers; assisting with grant applications; mentoring young people and apprenticeships. 50% say they would trust a business completely or a reasonable amount to run such a community service.

Indeed, where trust has been shattered, as it has so recently in the media, clothing, health and food industries thanks to negligence or malpractice, there is much to be said for businesses who do more than produce goods and services and make a profit, but actively look after their communities.

As the political writer Leroy Stick memorably said: "You know the best way to get the public to respect your brand? Have a respectable brand."