Drug-related crime, sleeping rough and other community issues are moving up the corporate agenda. It seems any company short-sighted enough to ignore its social responsibilities does so at its peril. According to the latest MORI research, three in 10 UK consumers in the past 12 months have chosen or have boycotted a product or a company for ethical reasons.
'A growing number of companies are beginning to understand that the way they respond to wider community issues does have an impact on their profitability and long-term reputation,' says Paul Sternberg, communications director of Business in the Community, a non-profit organisation.
The upshot has been a series of unlikely partnerships between companies, the Government and voluntary organisations, based on active involvement and the more traditional making of grants. Royal & SunAlliance has lent its name to a nationwide initiative to encourage businesses to support anti-drugs projects. More recently, an alliance of such companies as NatWest UK, FI Group, Morgan Stanley, Publicis, J H Schroder, Linklaters & Alliance, and Bain & Company has joined forces with related voluntary agencies to tackle the problem of homelessness. 'These (projects) would have been unimaginable only five years ago,' says Sternberg.
The difficulty is how to ensure that the corporate endorsement of a particular social project is of lasting benefit to the community and not merely being used as a cynical public relations exercise by the company. Careful selection by the charity of its business partner ensures that companies don't get away with inappropriate or ineffective assistance. 'We are wary of the company that comes to us with a preconceived idea of what it wants to give, instead of listening to what we really need,' says John Trampleasure, fund raising commercial director of Shelter, the charity aimed at tackling homelessness. So while a period of training from Marks & Spencer or the Halifax on how to run accounts more effectively is welcome, he says, an offer to 'paint a building for the 90th time' is not.
Businesses and charities should be clear at the outset what the parameters of the relationship are, says Paul Finnis, deputy managing director, fundraising and marketing, of Age Concern UK. 'Will it be short or long term? Confined to one discrete project or with the possibility of developing others?' he asks. A legal contract is always useful, he says, because it will 'ensure that obligations on both sides are clear and will help protect everyone's interests'.
Incorporating a community involvement programme into formal company policy is also essential for success, says Joanna Manning-Cooper, campaign manager of just such a programme at G-Tech, the lottery services provider. 'There has to be commitment from top management to grant employees time off to engage in voluntary work,' she says. G-Tech has recently launched a scheme that gives every employee one paid working day a year to do voluntary work at a charity of their choice.
Marks & Spencer, Alliance & Leicester, British Telecom and British Gas are also examples of companies that promote community work. 'Encouraging employees to join secondment programmes has additional benefits for the company, too. The business gets a more rounded, more enhanced individual, and a more effective manager,' says Cristie Miller, head of employee involvement at M&S.
Trampleasure of Shelter says: 'We must applaud growing active corporate involvement in the voluntary sector.' He adds that in some cases what a charity requires most is a straightforward financial donation, rather than hands-on help, but ultimately it is the combination of both that produces the most powerful results.