The big players in the community involvement scene are companies, but professional firms have a vital role to play too. So how do accountants and consultants, Coopers & Lybrand, go about meeting their community obligations?
Coopers & Lybrand ranks as the largest UK chartered accountancy practice, both by fee income and number of employees. Virtually alone among its peers, for the last four years it has had a member of staff dedicated to community involvement.
Lacking customers among the general public, professional firms have generally been slower to get involved than industrial or other service companies with greater need to worry about ‘licence to operate’. This is paradoxical – and a great loss to the whole CCI movement – because such firms are not only well equipped to make a strong contribution; they stand to gain great benefits. A professional firm like Coopers & Lybrand succeeds only on the calibre of its staff – not just their technical prowess but their ability to think laterally, be imaginative and flexible, and show a deftness of approach. Such human skills can be developed by crossing the boundaries from the narrow private sector world into the wider community, whether voluntary or public.
That is one of the potential benefits, but professional firms are particularly well placed to contribute too. Obviously they are power-houses of technical skills much in demand in voluntary groups. Furthermore the nature of their work, time limited discrete project assignments rather than a continuous production line, lends itself to short breaks on community assignments, provided of course the sheer volume of work allows.
These considerations are reflected in the approach adopted by Coopers & Lybrand, where the most important element of activity is the involvement of staff, both in a voluntary capacity and during the firm’s time. The voluntary aspect was formally recognised for the first time last year through a new annual Volunteering Awards scheme. Staff are encouraged to submit applications for grants of between £500 and £2,500 to charities with which the applicants are connected either as trustees or volunteers. A committee of six staff members, from across the country and different grades, assess the applications and make recommendations to the firm’s chairman for his agreement; 14 projects eventually won awards. After the success of the first year, the scheme is now being expanded.
The firm participates in three external schemes: with other ‘Big Six’ accountancy firms and Action: Employees in the Community, Coopers & Lybrand is a member of Chartered Accountants in the Community. Initially operating only in London, the objective is to encourage young managers to join the boards of charities. Secondly, Coopers & Lybrand provides one of the largest numbers of volunteers from any one company to Business in the Arts, which places employee volunteers in arts organisations, usually to advise on a practical management task. Finally, Coopers & Lybrand is a member of BITC’s Professional Firms Group and so contracts to provide some professional services to charities each year free of charge.
Against prevailing trends, the firm still operates a secondment programme, with around 20 people on external assignment for between three and six months. These are linked closely to staff development objectives; indeed any assignment longer than two weeks must be formally appraised. One reason for the continuing programme is the seasonal nature of some work, especially audit. With company years ends clustered around December and March, the last quarter of the year tends to be quieter, allowing some flexibility. Pressure of work at other times of year has so far precluded use of the 100 hour development assignment model, whereby staff take (say) a day a week away over three months to accomplish a community task.
While staff are free to select their own activities, the thematic focus for the firm’s community involvement is education, job creation and urban regeneration. This focus was chosen to help meet the firm’s need for a well trained workforce and a thriving economy. The value put on community activity is around £1.5 million, including staff time on community secondment and services provided free such as honorary charity audits. However this is thought to be an underestimate because information on activities in the regional offices is not always collated fully.
Coopers & Lybrand also has an active sponsorship programme in the arts, education and sport, although it does not release a figure for the total cost. Arts sponsorships are not London centred and recent examples include the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Opera North and Manchester’s Hall? Orchestra.
Coopers & Lybrand’s community involvement is led by Clare Gardner, who reports directly to Peter Smith, partnership chairman. She is supported by a second staff member, Kate Pilgrim. In meeting the programme’s objectives, they work with the Charities Committee, consisting of representatives at partner level from personnel, sponsorship, marketing and the business practice areas, and with the Charities Focus Group, of people from the business areas working with charity clients.
Wider social responsibility issues, such as the environment and purchasing policies, are not linked in to community programme. Within human resources, equal opportunities are being vigorously pursued, and links between the community programme and (say) staff development, although not yet fully in the mainstream, are growing.
Links with the business
The Charities Focus Group is an attempt to coordinate business activity. Links with the community programme are at early stage and the synergy between the two still being explored. For example, the management consultancy arm could gain most, as it is often commissioned by local and national government and by pressure groups to bring a business analysis to a particular issue. Staff engaged on such projects would benefit from experience in cross-sector working.
The charity sector in the UK is huge; the top 2,000 charities spend over £7.6 billion each year and many charities are themselves multi-million pound operations. Coopers & Lybrand has the greatest number of large charity audits (126, compared to nearest rival KPMG on 114, according to the 1994 edition of Henderson’s guide to UK charities). It is clearly wrong to expect professional firms to give all their services free, but they are inundated with requests, often from smaller organisations, and face a dilemma of when to charge, donate or offer a discount. Personal involvement of member of staff in voluntary capacity is one good yardstick; Coopers & Lybrand could lead the sector in best practice by publishing a clear policy statement based on an even-handed approach rather who happens to have ‘clout’ with a partner.
After several years of operating the programme in its current form, a radical review of the areas of focus and the ways of giving support is underway. Partners will conclude this by the end of 1995, looking not just at how the programme is run but also what is done. One area that is being addressed is whether to concentrate support through donations on just a few charities in the focus areas, rather than spread as at present.
After that, staff involvement through volunteering needs considerable further encouragement. The new Awards scheme is a start; another incentive the firm should consider is matched funding, offering both money for time as well as money for money (Give As You Earn, without company matching, is already possible). Coopers & Lybrand is ahead of its professional peers but has ground to catch up with leading public companies, many of whom are clients – and look to professional advisers to be at the leading edge of best practice.
Coopers & Lybrand
Year ended April 30, 1005
Chairman: Peter Smith
Main business: audit, accountancy and management consultancy services, including corporate finance, personal and corporate tax, insolvency and executive resourcing
Turnover: £575 million
Profit before tax: not published
Ranking: largest chartered accountant/management consultancy firm in the UK
Charitable donations: £400,000 (national donations only)
Total community contribution: £1.5 million
Memberships: BITC, Per Cent Club, Corporate Responsibility Group, ABSA, Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum, CCI Research Forum
Community Affairs Principal: Clare Gardner
Address: 1 Embankment Place, London WC2N 6NN
Phone: 0171 583 500 (direct line : 0171 213 4606)
Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 23 – August, 1995