When business decides to give something back to the community, it generally delivers it in the form of cash or a carefully chosen project with plenty of visibility. More often than not it is a take-charge programme - a one-way street with a perceived return.
Small wonder then that when a company is asked to assign a busy manager to spend one day a month learning about the issues that concern its home town, such as education, crime and race - and to do it in a forum where he or she is outnumbered by members of the public and staff from the voluntary sector - it may see the exercise as a monumental waste of valuable time.
But Common Purpose, a charity set up in 1989 to try to build networks in local communities and make public and private sectors aware of each other's roles, has blown away such scepticism and enlisted a host of blue-chip names. Under the leadership of whirlwind founder Julia Middleton, it now has programmes in UK cities from Aberdeen to Wakefield and the concept has been successfully exported to Germany, Sweden and South Africa.
For companies that like to measure the success of a programme in pounds and pence, it is hard to establish quantifiable gains for Common Purpose graduates, but managers who have taken part are quick to recommend the experience. They speak primarily in terms of education and personal development.
'In return for quite a modest time commitment, you get woken up, even if it's on only one issue,' says Bill Knight, a senior partner at Simmons & Simmons, a City of London law firm. 'It is good to be with people who look at things differently.'
Andrew Pople, Abbey National's managing director of retail banking, adds: 'The programme opened my eyes in terms of the way in which communities operate.'
Managers who have been through the Common Purpose system seem more willing to take on community roles. Stuart Raistrick, formerly company secretary of Northumbria Water, now works on a range of projects, including the Shared Interest Society, which raises money for micro-credit in developing countries.
So what does Common Purpose involve? After a 'get to know you' weekend - familiar in structure to any manager who has been on a corporate team-building exercise - the course consists of 12 days built round a series of themes. A typical day would start with lectures on the issues involved, followed by visits to local facilities such as hospitals or schools. These can be quite adventurous. When I did the course in 1994, I had a trip in a panda car, spent the morning at the Feltham prison for young offenders and watched a police riot training exercise at Hendon. The afternoon usually involves a further visit plus a discussion group or exercise designed to engage all the participants. This stage seems to be the most challenging and rewarding for many manager participants.
The mix of the groups is broad, with participants drawn from all sections of the community, such as police, artists, teachers, charities and small businesses. The split, according to Middleton, is about 40% from the private sector, 35% from the public sector and 25% from the voluntary sector.
This can make for some robust discussions, with representatives from business forced onto the back foot by the suspicions of participants from the public and voluntary sectors, who are not all paid-up believers in market forces.
'I met some people I would never normally have met - people who were articulate, bright and committed - and I was forced into a situation where I had to take sides,' recalls Knight.
Simon Birkett, joint head of equity capital markets at HSBC, observes: 'It would be hard to design a course that was more interesting. It covered diverse topics and was entirely apolitical.'
For the banker Pople it was particularly challenging, as he was thrust into a completely unfamiliar situation. 'It was a humbling experience. I was in charge of 1,000 people at Abbey National and suddenly I was going to a meeting where I would know next to nothing about the issue. I found that you had to be persuasive without using the power of position. You had to be persuasive because of the power of your argument.'
Although its value is impossible to measure in balance-sheet terms, Middleton thinks the breadth of experience provided by Common Purpose is essential for top managers. 'There's such a multitude of different reasons to put someone on the Common Purpose programme,' she says. 'People who have worked their way up in a local manufacturing company might be in awe of the experts and academics. Put them in a group with those people and they will learn they are just as smart, except in a different way. That gives them confidence.
And you can get managers who are brilliant strategists but have the people skills of a gnat. Executives can get quite pompous if they're not careful.
People on the Common Purpose course can burst that bubble.'
Middleton had worked for the Industrial Society before starting Common Purpose in 1989. She recalls: 'I knew a huge amount about management development, but it was all about depth, not breadth.' She and her husband, who worked in the private sector, had noticed that the further they went down their career paths, the narrower they became. 'Narrowing as a human being was what the company required. But that runs counter to the instinct of human beings to be inquisitive,' she says.
Her initial backers included NatWest, Grand Met, BP, Nationwide Anglia and Coopers & Lybrand. She found no difficulty in raising money. 'I came from the corporate sector and it can be dull and non-entrepreneurial.
If you get to the senior guy and you show energy and excitement, they can't resist backing that.'
In 10 years, some 10,000 people have gone through the course and the energetic Middleton is continuing the expansion drive. Two new UK programmes have been launched: Navigation and What Next? The former, which runs in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, is aimed at 25-year-olds. 'We hit them at 25-26, when they've been out of university and in work programmes for three years. They're arrogant and think they've discovered the world,' says Middleton. 'We've taken 10,000 graduates on visits to prisons and some of the 25-year-olds get panic attacks.'
What Next? is a programme designed for those over 50. 'They have given 20 years' worth of value to their organisations but have come out of quite a narrow pipeline,' she says, 'but they can still go on to add value for 20 years or so.'
The international programme, Civilia, is already established in Germany and Sweden. The programme in South Africa, says Middleton, came about after some black Common Purpose graduates wrote back and said: 'This is just what we need in South Africa.'
But Middleton seems most excited about the planned launch of an internet network called Citizens Connection, for which Paul Herbert, the Common Purpose technology guru, has developed new information-based software.
'The idea will be to give people all the information they need to become active citizens in Britain, and to give community groups the technological ability to have their own (internet) sites,' explains Middleton. 'We want to own the e-citizens concept in Britain.'
There is no doubting Middleton's energy, but most managers will still want to know: 'Is all the effort really worth my time?'
The participants I spoke to had all taken something from the course.
Genista McIntosh, executive director of the National Theatre, chaired one of the programme advisory boards from 1993 till the end of last year and helped set up what was then the south-east London programme. 'I don't see it as something that brings a direct and quantifiable benefit to the organisation. It is primarily a personal development programme for the individuals who participate,' she says. 'I found it a fantastic source of very useful contacts. It extends the reach of many of our ideas.
A programme like Common Purpose is very useful in the arts, where we can be a little inward-looking. The National was built facing the river and a blank wall faces the south. I felt as if we had turned our back on south London, so I was very keen to get involved.'
McIntosh has sent several staff members on the programme. 'People who have done the programme have a very much broader sense of the context of the National Theatre's work in London.'
She adds that companies considering sending staff on the programme should 'look at what sort of skills and competencies you want your managers to have. Consider that they ought to include a proper sense of civic responsibility.
Managers are expected to be competent in a wide variety of areas these days. There are few opportunities like Common Purpose. I'd recommend it to anyone.'
Knight of Simmons & Simmons says he was persuaded to go on the course by David Bell, then chief executive of the Financial Times, who invited a number of lawyers to lunch and gave them a pitch for the charity. 'I thought this sounded jolly interesting, so I'd do it myself,' he recalls.
He went on the north London programme and is now chairman of the north London advisory group.
Knight says the course has encouraged him to take a greater part in the community. He made friends with a head teacher and became a governor of her primary school.
Race was the issue where he saw the most educational benefit. 'As a lawyer, I find that we are sometimes behind the game in dealing with issues such as diversity, but clients have to live with it all the time. On a personal level, I think the course has allowed us to catch up a bit. One thing I learned was that it was OK to talk about racial differences in front of a mixed group of people.' Simmons & Simmons continues to support the programme.
Birkett of HSBC, who did the west London programme in 1994, was extremely keen to do the course. 'It gives you a much better view of the world and teaches you about things you wouldn't know about. It is more important for companies these days to be involved in the community around them.'
However, Birkett says only one HSBC staff member has followed his lead and he hasn't found that any real network has evolved as a result. 'The need for tangible follow-through is very important, otherwise it does become a bit of a grand talking-shop. They need the equivalent of a headhunter's database where they can call on the skills of the graduates.' He would recommend a manager to join the programme 'if you can persuade your company to support you and help you manage your time'.
Pople of Abbey National joined up for the Birmingham course when he was a regional director based in Coventry. 'It was an opportunity for me to discover what made the West Midlands tick, to give me a broader horizon on the local markets in which we operated. For the company, it was also an ambassadorial role.'
He was moved to Glasgow during the programme but has spoken at a Common Purpose conference since about the work Abbey National is doing in the community and he has been asked by Middleton to get involved in a committee that has an oversight over various London programmes. 'I would recommend the course with one heavy caveat,' he says. 'It's not like an MBA programme where you expect to maintain a network of alumni. But it is a great way of understanding the communities in which you operate. That is particularly important for a consumer-facing businesses.'
In short, Common Purpose is not a course for a manager looking for a quick pay-back in terms of business contacts or technical skills. But it could be a course for those with wider ambitions or for those whose companies play a natural role in the community.
The last word from Middleton is designed to motivate managers to take part and to gain from the experience: 'People in the private sector who are fast-trackers require other skills to be on a board. Being a governor of a school or the non-executive director of a health trust makes you acquire all sorts of abilities.'
Philip Coggan is markets editor of the Financial Times. Contact Common Purpose at 020 7608 8100 or commonpurpose.org.uk