Large corporates like to talk about corporate and social responsibility because they know it offers fantastic PR opportunities, builds loyalty amongst their staff and creates a general all round good feeling.
This is a very cynical attitude because if you think about it, business has always had a social impact on the community, either in the immediate vicinity, nationally or even globally. Business cannot help having an impact on the society in which it operates because it interacts with people, employs people and pays wages to people who then go and spend them.
The model of a philanthropic Victorian business resonates today with our libraries, many of them established by Carnegie and his trust. Our canal network, many built by private business and now used widely by communities throughout the land, as well as schools, hospitals and social housing. Think of the Quakers who built Rowntrees, Port Sunlight and more.
I’m not sure when the disconnect occurred between business and the community; perhaps it was during the period of nationalisation when everyone thought it was the government’s responsibility to look after us all, or maybe it was during the selfish 1980’s when yuppies ruled with their pinstripes and shoulder pads. Who knows when that disconnect happened, the good thing is that we’ve now reconnected business with the community.
One cannot survive without the other. Yes, organisations can give time, money and resources overtly to social projects, but in the main, the social impact of business is through who they employ, what they sell, what they make and how they distribute it. Most of us work for one kind of business or another which means that the business we’re in is a kind of social enterprise because without our wages we’d be asking the government for help for ourselves.
Business is society and society is business. There is no difference between the two which makes it essential to run businesses on strong ethical grounds with robust core values. The public sector and the third sector have always understood this, with a few rogue exceptions, they have operated with a strong moral purpose, placing the needs of individuals above maximising profit.
However, that strong moral purpose has itself become corrupted when working practices become so overtly focused on the rights of the employee that services suffer and costs soar. Just as profit driven business becomes corrupted when the pursuit of profit is placed above everything, including people’s lives.
As in all systems that wish to support a fair society, there has to be a balance. Whilst the lawyers, bankers and accountants spend weekends digging allotments, we would not be too pleased if this took over their day jobs in importance and failed to get our tax return in, because our accountant had decided her time was better spent feeding goats in Nepal.
All enterprise, whatever sector it happens to be in, requires a sensible balance of profit, cost consciousness, giving freely to those less able or fortunate whether that be in time or other resources and awareness of how its operations impact on the wider society it seeks to serve.
Some organisations have got this pretty well organised, including a few I know of personally; Blackwood Housing Association being one, a housing association that has implemented massive change to place it onto a more commercial footing so that it can provide a better service to its clients. Morris and Spottiswood being another, a strong ethos of health and safety with an ongoing commitment and campaign on all of its construction sites called “valuing life”, ensuring that its employees stay as safe as possible when working.
There are countless other examples. The efforts of the organisation don’t need to be huge because it’s the small thing that add up to make a difference to our society. If every single organisation took time to think about the impact of its operations upon its employees and the wider community, then our nation would benefit enormously.
Starting with your own immediate society is the best way to begin. Helping just one person with your time or other resources in your community will have a massive positive impact on them. I may only be a one woman business, but I give my time and expertise freely when I come across someone in my community who really needs help.
We are society and society is us. We must operate within some kind of business structure, in order to earn a wage and pay our way. It’s therefore up to us to do something everyday, no matter how tiny to help those with whom we share our society. Forget business in the community, business IS the community.
Rebecca Bonnington is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.
Rebecca is a Leadership Coach and Corporate Trainer. You can train with her by contacting her by email firstname.lastname@example.org or going to her website: www.rebeccainspires.com