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Perhaps we should be a little bit more rigorous about how we do good. And maybe voluntary sector groups should say no to funding more often.

These were two of the more surprising observations from our policy roundtable at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton this morning. With the support of Asda, we brought together a group of wise heads to talk about the future role of business in creating social value, and the changing relationship between government, public services and business.  We wanted an opportunity to discuss the findings of two of the RSA's recent reports – Community Footprint and Business, Society and Public Services – which make the case for shared value approaches. But in all honesty we were braced for a good deal of lip service, some polite apathy and the occasional raspberry. These are hard times for many businesses, so the idea that they need to concentrate more on generating social value looked sure to be a tough sell.

In fact, there was general agreement that we were asking the right questions and looking in the right direction. Vince Cable MP, Lord Newby, Stephen Gilbert MP and Alison Seabrook of the Community Development Foundation led a thoughtful discussion. The proposition that business needs to step up into a new role, given that public resources are stretched like never before, seemed to be taken as read.

The question for the morning was how to take that step. We don’t lack examples of good practice. Our reports are full of them. Asda talked eloquently about its Community Life programme. But what will it take to ensure that good practice at the margins becomes mainstream? What would get in – as one participant put it – ‘into the marrow of business’? We still seem to be tripping over the limitations of traditional Corporate Social Responsibility, in which social value has tended to be an add-on, a donation, a gift determined by the giver.

Shared value approaches can help avoid these obstacles.  They suggest a mature dialogue between business and its social partners, through which the social needs and constraints of markets can be identified and addressed in the round.  From this morning, it seems that there are at least three things that would help:

  1. Sufficient local autonomy within national businesses to enable community dialogue;
  2. Better measures for social impact (triple bottom–line reporting anyone?);  and
  3. A clearer line from the voluntary and community sector about help that really helps, rather than a willingness to pick up every fresh opportunity with gratitude.
  4. Though these are some way short of a paradigm shift, these would be positive first steps. So, a good morning at the seaside. Next stop Manchester.


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