‘New business ideas? Community engagement? Maybe a couple of years ago but not now, time are too tough, times are…’
If you’re out there trying to build a business, promote social enterprise or forge new ways of thinking that bridge gaps between business and community, you’ll be facing more and more of such attitudes. Some of the old guard of ‘traditional’ commerce almost seem smug at the idea we won’t survive the rigours of ‘real’ business.
But that’s not the case and, with self-belief and a preparedness to adapt to the new economic situation, social enterprise will thrive. Figures show that charitable giving actually tends to be steadier than the markets during economic down-turns. Social enterprise, in many ways, is about generating value: for both society and business. What could be more important when facing difficult times?
Working for the Middle East conflict resolution group OneVoice (www.OneVoiceMovement.org), I was at a charity committed to engaging business in helping us deliver our outputs. The system generated huge value. When we met with the founders of YouTube, we didn’t ask them for cash, we asked for a promotional video to be put on their homepage – over 500,000 people have seen it. It cost them nothing and will actually have contributed to their image, traffic and brand. It was priceless to OneVoice.
The World Economic Forum supported OneVoice by hosting the Palestinian President and the Israeli Foreign Minister at their Davos Summit, beaming in our youth activists from Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Jerusalem to address the leaders. It was something that money could never have bought and yet it cost next to nothing, and with 2,000 world leaders present, it helped WEF provide incredible content for their attendees. It brought business benefits to WEF and helped OneVoice work toward its goal.
Eight months ago I took this model and decided to set up The Social Investment Consultancy (www.tsiconsultancy.com). We teach businesses about how they can leverage their natural resources for the betterment of both society and their bottom line. There is a thirst for this in a new generation of employees, shareholders, directors and consumers.
New graduates are known as ‘Generation Yers’. Born between 1979 and 1998, they want to be successful business people, but they also want to do good with their skills. They want luxurious products, but won’t buy from unethical companies. For businesses to recruit and retain the best, they have to offer more than the corporate package. Community engagement is fast becoming a key competitive differentiator between professional services firms. In a recent survey of UK graduates by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 70% said that they will actively seek out employers whose corporate responsibility behaviour reflects their own. An Aspen Institute study shows business school students citing ‘business's responsibility to society’ as a top concern when choosing a job.
Leveraging resources can help with staff recruitment and retention as well as building brands, delivering advertising and increasing customer loyalty, and do all these things whilst benefiting the community. When we started pitching this idea we were faced with the attitudes that scared me most – ‘times are tough, we can’t afford to think about the community, I’m sorry…maybe a year ago…’
Now things are different, and we’re being inundated with interest from potential clients that range from some of the world’s biggest banks and law firms to social networking sites and drinks distributors. The reason for the turn around is simple; we’ve re-worked the pitch to talk to the new economic reality. We are now leading with how this approach can save money - how businesses can do more for the community by using their skills and services than by giving cash. Not only that, but it can also improve their profits: win-win.
Businesses have transport networks and supply chains, physical infrastructure, media outreach and human resources: leveraging a small percent of them in the community helps NGOs deliver better results but costs very little. It’s going beyond pro-bono and beyond philanthropy as businesses apply themselves to delivering community-goals and are duly rewarded by their stakeholders.
Of course charities will still need cash and businesses should be more generous not less, but in times when people are retreating from commitments, innovative solutions to generate value are the answer.
That is why social entrepreneurship will be rattled by this economic situation, but we will make changes to our approach where necessary and come out stronger and more central to both business and community.