This scorecard is due to be updated in 2018
The concept of community doesn’t just revolve around a ‘neighbourhood’ or the ‘literal local’, but rather something much broader. A community can be a group of people who share a geographical area, or culture, ethnicity, religion, life circumstances or common interests. Supporting community groups and/or causes involves engaging in social themes and issues at community levels, but can also be applied at societal levels.
In the geographical context, a company’s local community may be described as the people in the area local to its operations (a broad definition of local is applied – see below). Generally speaking, the stronger and more vibrant the local community, the healthier and more resilient the local economy, the better off the businesses that operate within it. Some businesses possess particular values, cultures or traditions which have resulted in their active engagement with the local community as a matter of course. However, irrespective of this, all businesses have commercial interests in strengthening and supporting the communities in which they operate – as this is likely to be home to the majority of their employees as well as their primary consumer base.
Conversely, companies with a poor reputation among members of the community might seriously jeopardise their social licence to operate. Although this is not a licence which businesses require in a strictly legal sense, without community support, companies may suffer in numerous ways, from public criticism, to reputational damage, to a loss of government support, for example in tenders for public sector contracts.
Businesses can support community groups and social causes in a number of ways, which will be highly context specific depending on both the nature of the business and the community group or cause. However, this support will often come in the form of money, employee time and expertise, and/or other resources which the business can offer. Well thought-out, relevant community investments can take a multitude of forms, from those related to geography, such as involvement or consultation on important issues affecting the area local to a company’s offices, to those relating to a social cause, such as a business deciding to support efforts to improve the quality of life for older people irrespective of where they live.
Community impact is one of four main areas of focus for Business in the Community, a charity created in 1981 in response to riots in Brixton in London and Toxteth in Liverpool. It suggests that businesses which invest in the community are essentially investing in themselves, highlighting the various benefits to business arising from investment in the community and/or in social causes, which can be categorised as follows:
- Brand and reputation enhancement through recognition from key stakeholders and the media;
- Better understanding of social issues relevant to the business, customer/market insight and ideas for improving products and services;
- Increasing the human capital within the organisation by improving employee morale, developing personal and professional skills (particularly when linked to learning and development programmes), and reducing employee turnover.
In the past, community investment was perceived by some as the “poor cousin” of corporate responsibility – a ‘nice to do’ alongside the other more business-relevant areas of CSR. The business benefits set out above demonstrate that this is not the case. Increasingly, businesses are demonstrating that community investment can be a critical ingredient for understanding customers and markets, attaining a notional ‘licence to operate’, engaging employees and developing their skills and supporting causes that are equally important to the business as to the community. It is old fashioned to view community investment as companies trying to ‘be nice’. It is about creating a positive business impact and a positive social impact in equal measures.
Business in the Community urges businesses to take a strategic approach to community investment and to consider five key principles. Namely, that a business should:
- identify the social issues that are most relevant and pressing to both itself and the communities it works with
- work in partnership with communities, leveraging combined expertise for mutual benefit
- plan and manage its community investment using the most appropriate resources to deliver against its targets
- inspire and engage its employees, customers and suppliers to support its community programmes
- measure and evaluate the impact that its investment has in the community and on its operations, and strive for continual improvement.
If businesses are supporting community groups or causes by providing employee volunteer time, those employees should be truly volunteering, rather than providing their time on the instructions of their managers, to avoid a variety of problems that might otherwise arise. Forced ‘volunteers’ are unlikely to have any real interest in the group or its activities, nor have any incentive to commit themselves properly, with disappointment for the group and a poor reflection on the company being the likely outcome.
However, there are forms of employee engagement with local groups or community causes that should not be categorised as volunteering. For example, a community project which is part of a leadership development programme is clearly not volunteering, and neither is a teambuilding day which is based on a community challenge, and neither is a programme designed to help the participants gain insight on social issues. These kinds of forward-thinking activities should not be confused with volunteering.
Programmes of involvement in the community are likely to be more successful when they are based on a clear understanding by both businesses and community groups of the expectations, requirements and needs of both sides of the relationship. Programmes should be well-defined, clearly-directed and adequately resourced, and ideally closely aligned with the company’s own values, philosophy and strategy.