Meeting society’s needs

David Grayson


Posted in: Community

Meeting society’s needs

May 18, 2007

Exactly twenty years ago, I moved across from what was then the Prince’s Youth Business Trust to Business in the Community – initially to head up BITC’s work in support of the 300-plus local enterprise agencies that were then in operation. Reflecting on the last 20 years, there has been enormous progress in the quality and extent of business involvement in the community.

Back then, hardly any major business had an employee volunteering programme – today, they are commonplace. In 1987, no company was reporting on its environmental and social impacts – today, 90% of the top 100 companies regularly do so.

We have seen an evolution from corporate philanthropy, which was sometimes disconnected from business purpose, to a far more sophisticated mix of corporate community investment related to business needs, combined with smarter support for the philanthropic activities (cash and time) from their individual employees.

Many leading companies have admirably stuck with specific social issues over the long term, and gained real insight for society (and sometimes for their own business activities too) from the longevity of their commitment. Some of these long-term corporate citizens will be honoured for their staying power in Business in the Community’s special Jubilee Big Tick awards this summer.

Yet businesses, government and the voluntary/community sector generally lack institutional memory and, therefore, are destined to repeat the same attempts to increase corporate involvement, as a forthcoming report by myself, Geoffrey Bush of Diageo and experts at The SMART Company will show.

A daunting new series of challenges to social inclusion, far more serious than those of the 1980s, demand urgent corporate action, alongside that of government and of the voluntary and community sectors. London is now reportedly the “knife capital” of the Western world. The spate of teenage shootings and knifings suggests a section of urban youth that lacks the know-how or the will to express feelings and ideas rationally.

Meanwhile, the new “demographic time bomb” will be a large elderly population, dependent on welfare; combined with a deteriorating dependency:worker ratio to pay for and to care for them. Already, the quality of life for too many elderly Britons is defined by a shrinking social circle and contracting safe physical space. I was struck by the plaintive comment of one old lady on the radio after the Easter knife murder in east London: “We are not living around here – we are just existing.”

In the 1980s, businesses created local enterprise agencies, education-business partnerships and Groundwork Trusts, and a range of other public-private-community initiatives to meet the challenges of social inclusion. But where are the modern-day equivalents? Just as businesses in the 1980s looked in new places for solutions then, so we need to encourage experimentation now. Briefing has recently featured the excellent Kids Company as one solution. Their Clubs that Count promotes community involvement by football clubs.

Businesses wanting to make a difference could get behind the new National Union of Teachers’ charter to improve the attainment of Afro-Caribbean boys. While schools, parents and pupils all have responsibilities, businesses are well placed to encourage employees – particularly successful young black employees – to act as mentors.

Similarly, when it comes to improving the quality of later life – promoting volunteering with the elderly and offering opportunities for the elderly to rebuild social networks – companies have ample opportunities to get involved.

At Housing 21 – one of the largest providers of social housing and care for older people across England ( – we are looking for such partners.

Getting serious business attention on social inclusion will have to compete for corporate and societal ‘air-time’ with other pressing issues, such as climate change and international competitiveness. We need to stress its continuing importance.

David Grayson is director of Cranfield’s new Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and a director of BITC. He chairs Housing 21 and is a contributing editor to Briefing.