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In good company

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a company in possession of a decent turnover must be in need of a corporate responsibility programme. It’s certainly trendy – think Google’s “do no evil” tag. The RSA is very trendy too, and we’re currently looking at how an RSA Network could support SMEs in fulfilling all their social responsibilities (including turning a profit).

The argument about sustainable business development hasn’t been won yet. A recent Economist carried one of the best idiot’s guides yet to the potential pitfalls of the fashion for CSR. Is fixing the world what business is for? On a pragmatic level, does it mean having to actively build social responsibility into every part of your business or will the odd philanthropic donation do?

Consider the CSR question in the context of the UK’s small to medium enterprises (SMEs). The majority of us working in the private sector are employed not by big corporations but enterprises of fewer than 100 employees; their social and environmental footprint is huge. But when upwards of 30% of small businesses go bust after the first year, turning a profit first and foremost is a matter of survival.

Having to respect other bottom lines (environmental, social, progressive working practices) is an unrealistic burden, some say. We want home-grown entrepreneurship, local businesses and economic diversity, so how exacting can we be of SMEs?

The RSA Network’s challenge is to reconcile SMEs’ bottom lines with their impact on the world around them. The aim is to rethink CSR not as a big business luxury, with a small number of high profile wins, but as a huge number of small gestures.

Anyone with practical insights into how we might make that happen should keep an eye on the Networks platform for details of how to get involved. To be continued…

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  • It's great to read about your interest in this area. I'm sure the RSA could play a key role in reducing the loneliness of entrepreneurship.

    However, having witnessed CSR in large corporations, I'm convinced that CSR has to start when your business starts. Otherwise, it's just a bolt-on, valued by some and ignored by many. There may be practical ways the RSA could help startups realise a CSR activism. Perhaps this might involve joining companies together so that we still create brand value from our efforts but also actually do some good, even though our resources are limited.

  • I have thought for some time that financial services companies, particularly those offering private medical insurance, ought to offer their clients the sort of health advice that makes them more confident and competent in managing their own needs. These qualities soon spread from medical to other matters in life, more infectiously than disease ever could. The benefit of fewer and cheaper claims on the company is obvious, and would easily fund the service. But the companies I approached proved very nervous of stepping out of line with the rest of the sector.

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