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Business is often seen as the antithesis of charities: two worlds that will never meet. Nonsense, argues Tom Levitt FRSA; there are plenty of ways in which firms can add value to the voluntary and community sector while benefitting themselves.

It has become the accepted view that the challenges of the world – the environment, human rights and food supply to name but three – will not be resolved without in some way tapping into or utilising the resources and power of business. Locally, in UK, we can add the challenges of an ageing society, the skills gap and the consequences of budget cuts on government and voluntary services to this list. Initiatives exist to help bring this engagement about: not only is there a forum for global concerned business, the Global Compact, but an international standard based on the Millennium Development Goals, ISO 26000, and the Global Reporting Initiative. Today one investment dollar in every six conforms to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Investment, seven times the level of 2006, but far below what is required.

So far, so good. This largest leviathan has opened its eyes and is starting to focus its vision on the problems with which other citizens, individually and collectively, have to cope with every day. This is surely good news, but is progress fast enough? Are the social priorities of business the right ones? Is the full potential of the corporate citizen being realised? No, on all counts.

Some giants, like Unilever, Nestlé and Coke (the world’s most sustainable food companies, according to Oxfam) have combined business strategy with an ambition to be a potent force for social change by adopting a ‘shared value’ approach. Most corporates, however, do not yet ‘get it’ fully and some adopt corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies that are incomplete, superficial or otherwise less effective than they could be. In the world of small and medium size businesses (SMEs), 99% of UK businesses, even this approach is poorly developed. SMEs are important because they are literally within our communities; the places where that 80% of charities, that have a turnover of under £100,000, are also found.

Let us concentrate on one aspect of the crisis: the capacity of voluntary organisations, large and small, to deliver in the community where public funding for services, both state and voluntary, is being cut radically. Bearing in mind that such cuts even mitigate against the conventional solutions of outsourcing to the private sector; how might corporate citizens lend charities a hand? And why is it in their interests to do so? Where funding is being cut it can be replaced to a small degree, but whilst fundraising, even payroll giving, can help generate employee coherence it is not a very original approach. It is ‘giving a fish’ rather then ‘teaching to fish’.

Enabling voluntary organisations to make more of what they have, growing capacity, is a longer term, more sustainable solution. Often the very skills that businesses have – administrative, creative, financial, project management, media, HR and technical – are the ones that are needed and which can be instilled in partner civil society organisations. They need manpower too, and even though the ‘standard’ employee volunteering time is around two days per year this can be used imaginatively in so many ways that are better than repainting the same wall three times (yes, it happens). Space – for meetings, storage, consulting, practicing – can be donated at no cost and items surplus to business needs can very often be found good homes in the voluntary sector.

In delivering its part of the National Citizen Service, Serco provides a platform for four national charities to operate within their mission on a scale (and at a rate of growth) greater than they could possibly achieve alone. Boots’ High Street partnership with Macmillan Cancer Care ensures that two in every three new cancer patients are now identified and offered volunteer support at an early stage in their journey, often by volunteers on the chemist’s own staff. In St Albans businesses, schools and charities work together to generate business skills in students, whilst raising both charity awareness and public donations to good causes. All these are imaginative and sustainable solutions, doing good business by doing good.

It is known that graduates looking for employment opportunities ask ‘what sort of a company would I be working for?’ and a strong level of community engagement helps attract good candidates. Within such businesses these activities help employees develop new skills, team work and a sense of purpose to their work and their life: employee retention and its associated cost savings follow. Volunteering is known to enhance personal wellbeing and help stave off mental health problems, so it is no surprise that employees with that sense of purpose take less time off through ill health (more savings). At the same time, a fulfilled workplace and a reputation for corporate responsibility work wonders in both the community and the market place.

Only 15 of Britain’s 160,000 charities have a turnover greater than that of a single typical supermarket outlet; that is a measure of the private sector’s potential to help others do good. The great thing is that it makes business sense for them to do so. Community engagement is perhaps the most high profile act of citizenship that business can adopt but other tactics work, too. For example, companies like Unilever have abandoned quarterly reporting in order to help foster a sense of longer term commitment in its business and fight the trend towards instant gratification that stock markets promote.

People in business are often the same people that help run charities voluntarily. Business will benefit in the long run from operating in a society that is at ease with itself and not divided, coherent and not dysfunctional; done with rather than done to. Working towards those goals is in the interests of business and the sooner this becomes the dominant philosophy within the private sector the better for all of us.

Tom Levitt is a writer and consultant on cross-sector partnerships. A former Labour MP, he is the author of Partners for Good (Gower, 2012) and Welcome to GoodCo, to be published by Gower in June 2014


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