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Corporate Social Responsibility and Social Investing - guest blog by Martin Williams
18/05/2015

Beyond chequebook CSR

As the gap between the rich and the poor widens to unprecedented levels – we unashamedly tolerate the need for food banks in the UK in the 21st century – business is frantically searching for attention grabbing brand differentiation to combat ever-greater competitive pressures. For over 50 years one way that businesses have attempted to differentiate is through the auspices of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).In parallel, we are now seeing the emergence the social venture economy that is spawning profitable hybrid enterprises that trade for social good, driven by a new breed of social entrepreneurs.

When Jamie Oliver stretched his brand into the social venture arena with Jamie’s fifteen thirteen years ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking that a new, innovative way of delivering social value beyond the norms of conventional CSR was born.

What is staggering is how few enlightened entrepreneurs have taken up the mantle and followed suit by leveraging their core brand to make social impact, and embraced the concept of Corporate Social Investment (CSI).  As far as I can see, Jamie’s fifteen is the only social venture in the UK borne out of a core brand and operating in the same space, and that was created way back in 2002!  fifteen is just one of Jamie Oliver’s strategies (school dinners captured the public imagination) to endorse the business as a brand with a mission, and consumers just love a compelling story.

Before you point out that fifteen was originally set up as a charity, that takes nothing away from its rightful place as an enterprise first and foremost, borne out of the mother brand, and before the term social venture was coined, and before the words social enterprise became part of our everyday vocabulary. Only the London restaurant is part of the Jamie Oliver empire, both Cornwall and Amsterdam are independent, and this proves the theory of scalability through spreading the idea, and if proof were needed, just goes to show how powerful brands can be.

The lack of benign plagiarism of the idea is even more of a mystery given the potential win-win-win benefits of core business enhancement, shareholder value, and social impact generated through this enlightened approach, not to mention recruitment attraction and the added-value corporate growth dimension.

Corporates entertain the social agenda for a variety of reasons:

  • They may have a strong social ethos and believe that they have a responsibility beyond the desire to enhance purely bottom line performance.
  • They may reluctantly have to because their customers demand it, particularly those supplying to the public sector.
  • They are smart enough to recognise that it’s good for business.

Whichever, it doesn’t matter why, it is much more important how.

Of course, it’s easy to entertain the notion of CSR, and since its inception in the 1960s we’ve witnessed dozens of ways of being seen to be a responsible business, from being nice to employees, recruitment diversity, being kind to the environment, community initiatives of every imaginable dimension and charitable donations.

Yet in over 50 years, even accounting for triple bottom line scenarios, and Porter’s Creating Shared Value paper in 2011, we’ve seen very little in the way of disruptive change.

Too few CSR initiatives promote the concept of self-reliance, of giving people the tools to create their own solutions. What is clear is that there is little in the way of evolution out there, it needs brave, enlightened change-makers to do something radically different to change the status quo.

Many of these so-called CSR initiatives by corporates are still no more than ‘paint the community centre’ projects, which bear no resemblance to the notion of investment and provide no sustainable solutions, doing little other than stroking the ego and ‘ticking the box’.

Even worse are the transparent marketing initiatives, dressed up as CSR, generating cheap publicity in the name of caring, responsible business.

However, hidden in the depths of many private sector organisations lies an inherent desire to go beyond the rhetoric of conventional CSR, by creating social value directly through appropriate investment, rather than through arms length charitable donations that ‘tick the box, now let’s get on with the day job.’

Enlightened leaders recognise that they have the capacity, capability and connectivity to add real value to the social venture economy, to mobilise their own valuable resources to make sustainable change.

This is particularly true of entrepreneur and privately owned family businesses that want to put something back into the community, and more importantly have the decision making power to act quickly, without getting tangled up in the intrigue and politics that hinder many of our larger publicly quoted businesses.

The view held in some quarters, and in particular by eminent American economists such as Milton Friedman, that CSR distracts from business’ prime economic role, no longer holds any credence.

There is good news. There are some great examples of true impact businesses, with major brands such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Unite funding young aspiring entrepreneurs on a global scale, and promoting NOTS, the African initiative, one of the few to take a holistic view of environmental and social issues.

Marks and Spencer has been engaged in their Plan A initiative since 2007, a major project with over 100 commitments dedicated to environmental impact and charitable donations, although perhaps dumbed down a little with one of the latest initiatives involving staff cleaning beaches.

Timpsons is another great example of a business that takes its social responsibilities seriously, with the Chef’s Academy on Anglesey and the ex prisoners Academy programme, just two of its many innovative direct impact initiatives.

Timpsons has recruited 93 ex offenders direct from prison in the last year.  61% of all offenders return to prison, whilst only 17% with jobs return to prison. The Timpson re-offend rate is a miserly 3%, just one of their impressive social impact statistics.

The Jamie’s fifteen model takes this laudable approach just one step further, and illustrates how entrepreneurs and business owners can create and support their own sustainable social ventures in line with core business, by creating subsidiaries that operate in the core business space but with social impact objectives.

It is a paradox that the social venture economy in the UK, led by the social enterprise movement, and apart from a few well known names such as Big Issue and the Eden Project, is comprised almost entirely of micro-businesses that lack resource, and in many cases, business expertise. They certainly lack investment.

In a parallel universe, the private sector, awash with resource and know how, in too many cases follows the traditional CSR formula of giving, fostering a dependency, unsustainability culture, contra to their best intentions.

What is certain is that we need a new narrative as organisations frantically search for differentiation, a new disruptive energy beyond the narrow confines of out-dated thinking.  Sustainable solutions to many of our social challenges can only be attained through a collaborative approach across the private and social economy sectors, not with them operating in silos with conflicting agendas and misaligned objectives.

In turn, sustainable business can only be accomplished through enterprise and trade, and Jamie’s fifteenprovides a blueprint for collaborative engagement with the social venture economy, through enterprise investment, way beyond the limited horizons of conventional chequebook CSR.  As Banksy said, “I don’t want coins, I want change”.

Tex Gunning, CEO of TNT Express, explicitly understands the notion:

“If a few of us can prove that it makes good business sense not just to be socially responsible but to make a serious social mission intrinsic to one’s business, then this is going to be written about, studied, and publicized, because nothing is transferred faster than a success story in business. So I am very optimistic that if a few businesses can set an example here, we can make a tipping point out of it.”

Excuse the intentional pun, but the ‘bottom line’ is that there is a huge, untapped opportunity for the private sector to create, incubate, foster, mentor and invest in the social venture economy, bringing about collaborative, joined up sustainable solutions.

The big win of course is that by taking the Corporate Social Investment path, smart people will not only want to buy from you, but they will also want to work for you, to be part of an innovative organisation that takes its social responsibilities seriously and integrates the business into every day life, believing in and practising the concept of social intrapreneurship. They want not only the chance to contribute directly but also meaningful personal development opportunities way beyond having a day off to paint the fence of the local retirement home.

© Martin Williams May 2015

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