Engaging Business in the community – not a quick fix.


Posted in: Analysis/Comment, Community, Speaking Out

Engaging Business in the community – not a quick fix.

June 10, 2008

Amanda Jordon reflects on 15 years of efforts to build bridges between the public, private and voluntary sectors to promote community development.

Partnerships between government, business and the community to promote social change have become an accepted part of the landscape over the last 15 years.

This is the starting point of a report entitled “Engaging Business in the Community – Not a Quick Fix” published by the Smith Institute, the independent think tank set up in memory of John Smith, the former leader of the UK’s Labour Party. The study sought to look at the changing
relationships between public, private and voluntary sectors, and how these are impacting on social values and economic imperatives.
The report was launched recently at a seminar hosted in London and attended by an audience from all three sectors. The report’s main authors; Amanda Jordan, David Grayson and Geoffrey Bush have nearly three decades each of experience of working in this field.
This combined experience of almost 100 years has meant that the authors have been involved in many of the enquiries and placed them in a strong position to capture lessons and also to offer some clear priorities for the future.
Engaging Business in the Community – Not a Quick Fix examines a number of seminal reports and enquiries instigated by government, business and the third sector going back to 1991. They range from Directions for the Nineties (BiTC 1991) through the Tomorrows Company Inquiry to more recent government led research such as the Social Exclusion Unit Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy and the follow up report of the private sector advisory panel commissioned by the Office of Deputy Prime Minister in 2004. The authors consulted with a number of other expert commentators and practitioners from government, third sector and business during the course of their review.
The basic premise of this report is that despite the increasingly important role that partnership plays there has been very little institutional memory built up over this period as to what has worked and why.

Given that this period has seen unprecedented collaboration between sectors to address social problems, it is surely a failure of public policy that lessons aren’t always learnt and we so often see the same initiatives resurrected in new guises.
The report set out to examine what lessons could be learnt and what is left to be done and is structured around three key priorities:
developing the enabling environment sustainability of commitment effective partnerships and building capacity.
There are lessons for all three sectors.

For government, a review of the past 20 years suggests that, despite considerable progress in some areas, overall the pace of change has seemingly slowed. The current debate on reform of public services should breathe new life into the partnership debate, but the debate isn’t
as informed as it could be if we had captured the lessons of the past. Better coordination within government is needed and more efforts should be made to get a wider range of businesses, particularly small businesses engaged.
The message for business is that they are too often falling into the trap of defining communities in terms of initiatives. In fact most businesses don’t define at all what they mean by ‘community’ and often confuse charitable support and philanthropy with addressing the social impacts of their businesses on their geographical and interest communities. Businesses can also do a great deal more in helping to build the capacity of the third sector. Many of the enquiries and reports examined identified this as crucial to the development of civil society. Government have responded by launching programmes such as Future Builders and Change Up but many businesses aren’t thinking in terms of supporting infrastructure through financial or skills development. More opportunities for three way secondments between civil servants, the voluntary sector and business should be promoted.
The third sector needs to be better at articulating what it requires to enable it to play a full part in collaborative initiatives. The need for brokerage is also recognised and can very often be provided through the third sector.
Despite these criticisms it was felt that the UK does have a good story to tell on collaboration between the sectors and should be spreading the message on the international stage.
Jane Nelson, Director of the CSR Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard suggests in her chapter on the global perspective that the UK should consider hosting a meeting of government leaders from eight to ten countries with their corporate responsibility counterparts to explore these issues.
There is now an active network composed of the heads of leading CR organisations around the world that meet on an annual basis to share lessons and emerging trends, so a precedent exists. Jane also highlights the important role that private Foundations have played in supporting the growth of corporate community investment and links between large companies and social enterprises in countries like the USA, South Africa, the Philippines and Brazil. These lessons should be shared particularly with emerging economies as they develop their own CR infrastructure.
The authors didn’t set out to produce a forensic assessment of total activity but instead have done a personal ‘stock- take’ of what has happened over this period. By examining these reports and listing the recommendations with an assessment of achievements (or otherwise) against the key ones, they have provided a reference point for others who wish to learn. In fact, the challenge is there for others to make a more detailed assessment for the future but in the meantime what this report has done is brought together in one place the key recommendations on promoting cross sector community involvement over fifteen years.
These are grouped together under the themes of leadership; capacity building and facilitation; information sharing and best practice; management approaches to corporate community investment; regulation; legislation and fiscal measures; and measurement and reporting. It is hoped that by organising them in this way the report will be a useful reference point for practitioners now and in the future.

Amanda Jordan is Co-Chair of Corporate Citizenship and coauthor of the featured report.