Community affairs is dead. Long live community affairs.

May 28, 2008

As I speak to companies about their community investment programmes there’s a refrain I hear with increasing frequency. It’s usually along the lines of community investment not being a current priority as a company focuses its energies and resources into issues of CSR or sustainability. It’s an attitude predicted, albeit unintentionally, in this journal’s own transformation from Community Affairs Briefing to Corporate Citizenship Briefing back in 2002.
As CSR practitioners fight to get their hands dirty on ‘real’ issues – in the supply chain, the environment or other areas of a company’s impact – why has community investment become the poor relation?
Some of the blame, it has to be said, lies with the community investment function itself. There are companies whose community investment programme is still little more than a personal charity chest to satisfy the philanthropic whims of senior executives, and there are far too many more that mistake the identification of a number of broad ‘focus’ areas with a coherent strategy.
However, in recent years there has been some great work done by a core of community affairs practitioners, largely in the UK, but increasingly internationally, to ‘professionalise’ the function. It is unfortunate that the perception of community investment that too often holds sway is the traditional ‘cats and cancer’ model of reactive corporate philanthropy.
In this issue Amanda Jordan introduces research that reviews progress since the early 1990’s on how business can best work with the voluntary and community sector. The results are mixed. There has been good progress in some areas such as developing consistent measurement methodologies (LBG and the CR Index for example). But there are other areas where progress has been less significant, such as successfully linking community activity with personal and professional development.
An area where limited progress has been made is in managing community involvement as strategically as any other part of business activity. If community investment professionals wants to buck this trend what can be done?
The fact is that well managed strategic community investment can be one of the sharpest tools in the CSR toolbox. It can return real business benefits – whether through better employee retention, improved customer satisfaction or positive PR. Indeed, there are companies who willingly attest that their community investment programme is their only source of positive press coverage. More than this, community investment, if properly managed, can also position a company as a force for good while addressing some of its key social and environmental impacts.
The challenge for the community investment practitioner is to demonstrate these benefits. They must establish proper processes – setting objectives, reviewing progress, measuring impact and reporting consistently. Cadbury Schweppes’ well-drilling partnership with WaterAid, the Vodafone UK Foundation’s partnership with Shelter, Samaritans and Youthnet, HSBC’s Climate Partnership, Barclays Spaces for Sport are all great examples of projects that can report significant achievements back to the business and to the wider community.
However, such strategically managed programmes need to be resourced properly. It requires time, money and hard work to develop sustained partnerships. Resources need to be made available to both the community team and the charity partners so each feels able to provide the best assessment of their success or otherwise.
We are facing a catch 22 situation. If community investment is to be taken more seriously it needs to demonstrate its achievements; but for this to happen it needs to be resourced adequately. It is up to community investment professionals to tackle the former in order to achieve the latter.

Jon Lloyd is a consultant at Corporate Citizenship
Tel: 020 786 1616