Community involvement: packed with potential

Zanna Rodrigues

 

Posted in: Technology & Innovation

Community involvement: packed with potential

December 01, 2004

Corporate community involvement has long been under-rated as a tool for government relations. Not only can it stave off cumbersome intervention by regulators, but it can also help to deliver on current public policy objectives as well as provide potential policy solutions for the future.

Companies must link their CSR activities with broader government aims if progress is to be made in achieving sustainable development goals, it was argued in Gearing Up, a report published by SustainAbility earlier this year.One of the most obvious ways in which companies can do this is by connecting corporate community investment (CCI) programmes with broader policy issues.

1. Contractually obliged

In some cases, the link between CCI and policy objectives is made explicit in contractual obligations. This is common among utility companies and other privatised industries with an obvious public mandate.

British Gas, for example, like its competitors in the industry, is required by regulation to address the issue of fuel poverty in the UK. The former publicly-owned company,however, developed on the terms of its license to create an award-winning partnership with charity Help the Aged.

Over the last five years, it has improved domestic heating conditions for 1.7 million elderly people, as well as helping to combat problems of isolation and home security. British Gas has also received recognition for here to HELP, a three-year partnership with seven UK charities which links fuel poverty to household poverty.

The programme is serving to reduce household poverty among disadvantaged communities by providing simple practical ways to make homes ‘warm, safe and comfortable’.

Both examples show how CCI can be used to go beyond regulatory requirements and contribute to social policy goals.

2. Beyond compliance

For most companies, however, the social obligations of the law focus primarily on the payment of taxes, leaving the onus of social policy firmly – and rightly – with government.

Yet the business rationale for engaging voluntarily on a number of social issues is often pressing. HIV/AIDS represents perhaps the most dramatic example of recent years. More and more businesses, in particular those with operations in Africa, have adopted CCI programmes to raise awareness of the condition. Many have also begun to follow Anglo American’s example of providing anti-retroviral treatment for employees with HIV/AIDS.

Such interventions garner wide popular support, as well as gaining for progressive companies greater credibility and legitimacy with policy makers.

3. Snipping the red tape

CCI programmes are often portrayed in the media as blatant attempts to offset the threat of regulation. While not as one-dimensional or as calculated as some commentators put it, there is perhaps some truth in the claim.

One needs look no further than the reaction of the food industry to current concerns on consumer health. Cynics will note that leading UK food manufacturers chose to publish their Food and Health Manifesto conveniently close to this month’s publication of the government’s white paper on public health. While the manifesto is clearly designed to influence certain policy recommendations, it also points to a catalogue of industry interventions aimed at resolving the food health issues currently grabbing the headlines.

As well as changes to nutritional content, it is evident that CCI has played a key role in this industry-led process of policy intervention. Examples of proactive initiatives abound. Walkers, for example, is giving away 5 million free branded pedometers as part of its £3m Get Britain Walking[/I[ campaign. Coca-Cola and Pepsi, meanwhile, are working with a number of UK football clubs to help run health promotion activities in schools. The danger for any industry under the regulatory spotlight is that policy makers will make snap decisions to gain political leverage. For the food industry, CCI not only demonstrates companies’ ongoing commitment, but it also influences what direction future policy ought to take (i.e promoting active lifestyles, as well as regulating consumption). 4. Sum of the partsThe most convincing case for CCI as a policy tool, however, is when it complements the implementation or development of government’s own efforts. The ICT industry provides a particularly good example of a participative approach. In October, for example, a group of eight businesses established an partnership to help bridge the digital divide, the [I]Alliance for Digital Inclusion (ADI). Although the ADI is independent of the government, it is a development that fed out of recommendations in the government-backed Digital Inclusion Panel report. The ADI, whose members include BT, AOL UK, T-Mobile and IBM UK, is designed to create collaborative partnerships at national, regional and local levels.

Trends in a range of policy areas, from education and health to enterprise and employment, demonstrate a clear conviction among policy makers of the added value of working in partnership with business. As with the ICT industry, CCI often acts as the first and most effective meeting point between the public and private spheres.

Where the private sector really brings its weight to bear in such partnerships is its ability to innovate and experiment. Again, the ICT industry boasts a number of prime examples; Cable & Wireless‘ after-school ICT Academies, Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential initiative, HP’s Digital Communities project, mm02’s work with asthma patients and Cisco’s Network Academies to name but a few. Each company is using its experience and resources to develop small-scale but scalable solutions for education and inclusion-related challenges.

The ICT is therefore proving how, at its best, CCI can provide an invaluable stimulus for the development of effective (and often market-based) social policies.

5. Knock knock

In its crudest form, CCI can do little worse than help maintain good relations with government representatives, especially at a local level. As part of a wider package of industry measures, well-designed CCI initiatives can also earn companies a legitimate place at the policy table. Furthermore, the best CCI programmes also offer policy models that have a proven track record.

There is of course a danger of exaggerating the impact CCI can have on government policy. Policymaking is a complicated game, and one easily influenced by the short-term clamours of public opinion, as the recent ban of TV advertising to children demonstrates. Companies using CCI to hoodwink legislators into dismissing necessary legislation will also face disappointment.

Yet government thinking, especially in the UK, is proving ever more favourable to a collaborative approach to social policy. Strategic and effective CCI programmes present business with an open door to help shape and direct such thinking. Something to think about next time the regulator comes knocking.

Casestudy: CCI and gambling

As parliamentarians and the press debate the prospect of Las Vegas-style casinos appearing in the UK, the gambling industry sees CCI as a key component of its response to legislators’ concerns. For example, Sporting Index, a spread betting specialist, has pledged a penny to charity for every bet placed with it. The money has been earmarked for three charities, one of which includes the Responsibility in Gambling Trust. The Trust aims to reduce the probability of problem gambling, while also providing access to effective help for those that do have a gambling addiction.

The initiative represents an effort by the gambling industry to improve its reputation by associating itself with a charitable cause (much as the government has attempted to do, it should be pointed out, with the National Lottery). In addition, it serves to promote responsible gambling and publicise the existence of safety nets for problem gamblers.

If anything is going to persuade doubters of the industry’s responsible intent, then strategic CCI initiatives like this, which demonstrate a willingness to deal with gambling’s negative social costs, must be it. ( http://www.gict.org.uk)

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 79 – December, 2004

Zanna Rodrigues is Briefing’s news writer. She is also a researcher for The Corporate Citizenship Company.

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