Community programmes developed by business should aim not just to do good but to be innovative and influential.
In the context of greater transparency, rising public expectations and pressing social, economic and environmental issues, corporate responsibility matters more than ever.
But debate can sometimes become muddled by a failure to clearly distinguish two different, albeit overlapping sets of issues: core business and philanthropy.
Most large companies seek to demonstrate that their practices in areas ranging from water usage to labour standards in developing countries go well beyond regulatory requirements and impact reporting has significantly raised the bar in terms of expectations and practices, particularly in relation to environmental issues.
Moreover, some notable businesses such as Unilever and carpet manufacturer Desso, are genuinely committed to reforming their core business model to align commercial performance with social benefit.
On the other side, corporate philanthropy tends to be less robustly evaluated, perhaps because it can be seen as a voluntary add-on.
Over the last 15 years as a thinktank director, Downing Street insider and now chief executive of the RSA, I have often listened to accounts of philanthropic activities by private sector directors of public affairs or CSR. And I have pressed them to be a bit more self-critical and ambitious.
The real prize is to show that your initiatives are so powerful that other organisations – and maybe even the government – should be following your lead. That way you make a difference not just to the people you deal with directly but to the whole of society.
The case for leading change rather than just doing good is even stronger today. Families, communities and public institutions are under greater pressure and need help that is more enduring than a one-off treat or donation.
Austerity also means government, at all levels, is more interested in initiatives that might achieve greater social benefit at lower cost. If community programmes are to make a difference they must have one or more of three goals: to make a long term and substantive impact themselves; to develop good practice that other organisations can apply; or to work collaboratively to help drive improvements in policies and systems.
There are many examples – although not enough – from which to choose. Bloomberg has won awards for its training and volunteering programme with the Roundhouse arts centre which provides young people not in education or employment a chance to develop practical media skills. Most of us know Timpson’s because they have repaired our shoes or cut our keys but their work in training prisoners and employing ex-offenders is often held up as an example of good practice in the field. Supermarket Asda is exploring how its team of more than 500 community champions can make a lasting impact in building local capacity and embedding their stores in community life.
In all these examples, not only is there buy-in at all levels by the companies involved, but they are willing to look critically at what they are doing, evaluate it and share the lessons with other businesses, charities or government departments. In doing so, companies raise the bar for themselves, inviting commentators to judge not just their motives but also their impacts.
One mixed example is the impressive work on one-to-one reading recovery which was led by the KPMG Foundation. The foundation’s detailed research and evaluation was an important factor in convincing the then Labour government to promise one-to-one “reading recovery” for all primary pupils who had fallen behind. When the coalition cut the funding, the KPMG work became a weapon in the debate between the scheme’s defenders and critics.
If, through their core business activities or CSR programmes, businesses genuinely want to make a benign difference to the lives of citizens they will have to be willing to ask the kind of hard evaluative questions which are the daily agenda of government and third sector policy makers.
Often, the kinds of analytical skills needed exist within the business but have been dedicated to maximising the bottom line.
An interesting example of alignment between corporate strategy and public policy came when Diageo used its own research to influence public health messaging about binge drinking, moving the emphasis from an ineffective focus on long-term health to powerful images of young people making fools of themselves when drunk.
One of the challenges of a more robust approach to community programmes is convincing the public and media that companies have interesting things to show or say which aren’t entirely self-serving (a reason why companies often work in collaboration with independent research bodies).
With an economy flatlining, public service cuts accelerating and social needs increasing, modern corporate philanthropy needs to be less about warm feelings and more about big ideas and practical innovation.
Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA
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