Today, as the business community tries to become more ethical in terms of ESG (environment, social responsibility and governance), companies need to balance their business goals with the right degree of social accountability.
Larger businesses traditionally had CSR programmes which were often closely related to their PR and communications work. With hindsight, we might see these as window dressing because things are different now. With new regulation and greater expectations of good corporate behaviour, many companies are actively pursuing the social part of their ESG obligations. This is clearly a good thing, and while large corporates will have experience of “social responsibilities”, that may not be true for smaller businesses.
Being socially responsible is not the same as being a “purpose-driven” business although the two may overlap. Many big brands have linked their marketing to a “purpose”. Well-known brands such as MacDonalds and Amazon have done so and it can work for companies of all sizes. A “purpose” can be a differentiator when there is no obvious USP, as with IT service businesses for example. However, ESG is broader and different to “purpose”. It demands that companies make certain material changes. I understand ESG as an aspiration to trade without harming the environment, to treat all stakeholders fairly and to give back to communities. This post looks at the “social” part of ESG, where companies may not see a clear path to follow.
What does a social programme look like?
This was the topic at the Cambridge Network’s “How socially responsibly are you?” event. The event was about enabling relationships between Cambridge businesses and local non-profits, charities and social enterprises, so that they could engage and form mutually beneficial partnerships.
Many companies already have community activities, for example they may give employees time off to volunteer and fundraise for good causes. This work might be driven by individuals’ own interests and may be quite random and ad hoc. Ideally, a social programme should be more strategic, and should harness business resources to benefit the community and the business. It should also continue longer term. The speakers advised that companies should choose community activities that are relevant to their business, and that matter to their employees and customers.
From the point of view of a community partner, a relationship with a business needs to be long term if it is to have real value. It is not enough to pilot a social project for three months and then evaluate whether it brought any benefits. That would be missing the point. Social involvement should be altruistic. It means stepping away from the glossy, well-organised corporate world into a place where activities run on a shoestring and much relies on the generosity and goodwill of part-time people and volunteers. This is where we see the best in other people.
Building community relationships
Cambridge with its successful technology sector is wealthy, but like other cities it has homelessness and poverty. Fortunately there are many local groups working to alleviate these issues. Rachel Hales facilitates such work around Cambridge and quotes the Support Cambridgeshire survey which says 74% of non-profit organisations want help to build relationship with businesses. Similarly, many companies want to find the right community partner and build a worthwhile social programme. Interestingly, we learned that the needs of community organisations might not be what businesses expect, for example a community group might just need access to meeting rooms or a mail franking machine.
There were some stellar examples of community partnerships: a company who invested in training and skills development for disadvantaged groups in their community created a pool of prospective employees. Another business invested in a social enterprise and this evolved to become a valued part of their supply chain.
All this showed that even small firms can make a difference in their community and that the relationship can be valuable to the business in surprising ways.
Companies gain more than “purpose”
Besides the benefit of having a purpose, community activities broaden staff experience and add an important extra dimension to the formal training that most organisations provide.
Employees can take a break from the pressure of their work life and become involved in something that is more fun and rewarding in a different way.
There is marketing value. People hear about your business through the local network.
People like to do business with ethical companies, so when it comes to the tender process, people may choose a company that is doing good work in its community.
All this shows that a proper social programme can bring business benefits, but it is important to remember that social responsibility is not supposed to be about commercial gains. It is about being a good corporate citizen and giving something back.
About Get Synergised and Rachel Hales
“Fostering collaboration between businesses and non-profits is a powerful force for positive change. At our events, we bring these sectors together, urging businesses to strategically engage with their non-profit partners. Are you struggling to find charities aligned with your social responsibility goals or lacking a strategy in this area? Get Synergised can help. We are consulting with businesses nationwide, unlocking the ‘S’ Factor in your ESG. Integrate it into your goals and witness the myriad benefits for your business, employees, and community.” Rachel Hales, Founder and Social Entrepreneur at Get Synergised – www.getsynergised.com.
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