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East Midlands Chamber News

Businesses giving back: Eight company leaders on what CSR and ESG means to them

Whether it’s known as giving back, corporate social responsibility (CSR) or environmental, social and governance (ESG), businesses have a vital role to play in their communities. Dan Robinson finds out what the key drivers are for supporting good causes and how companies can create more impact via such projects from a range of business leaders, who debated their experiences at the Chamber’s first virtual President’s Dinner of 2021.


Philip Webb, Investors in Community founder and managing director

We operate in the middle of this sector by facilitating the interaction between business and good causes.

This is what I call them because while there’s 167,000 charities, there’s about half a million community groups, not-for-profits and schools that fall into the good cause category. We have more than 300 live projects.

From my experience, if you want a business to adopt new principles, you must have a reason for doing it, and there’s a couple of key drivers in the marketplace right now.

First of all, there’s natural commercial pressures. The millennials and Generation Z aren’t asking – they’re demanding – to know what businesses are doing in this respect.

They’re saying ‘we’ll choose where we put our labour, our productivity and, indeed, who we're going to support in the market by choosing where we buy our products’, and they're voting with their feet.

Also, new measures came into effect in January that place a 10% weighting on social value in the quality of responses when bidding for central Government tenders.

Secondly, we all file our accounts every year to generally accepted accounting principles, known as GAAP.

Read this article and more in Business Network magazine

Further down the line are generally accepted impact principles that will be filed alongside your company accounts each year – something that’s being pushed by the US and will be here very quickly.

While this will initially apply to bigger companies, we’ve seen with GDPR how the larger companies that are affected have initiated supply chain audits. Eventually, it gets to the small companies and they have to be GDPR-compliant.

The same thing will happen with social impact reporting, where businesses must prove their social value credentials to become and remain part of the supply chain.


Lindsey Williams, Futures Housing Group chief executive

We used to carry out a lot of random CSR activities that made people feel warm and cosy, but actually when we looked at what they achieved, either they weren’t really needed or we couldn’t measure the impact.

So what we’ve chosen to do instead is identify the real needs within a community and then decide how best to support them by picking just two or three key areas for us to work in.

We find this helps to keep people’s passion burning and it’s easier to measure the true value, but we’ve also learned lessons that can be applied to other organisations.

If you’re going to do something, try to address the root cause rather than just treat the symptoms. We did a lot of employability work but realised that until the root causes within chaotic families were dealt with, people wouldn’t be ready to look at their CVs or do work placements.

There’s a lot of activities that don’t really add value – for example, painting a school fence might be a nice thing to do, but what it really requires is money for a particular project.

So it’s about understanding what the needs are rather than what makes us feel good about ourselves as a business.

The reason many organisations may not have CSR strategies like this is simply because they don’t know how to do it or who to connect to.

Rather than always doing it themselves, there’s a lot to be said for supporting other organisations that are experts in tackling a particular issue.

Also, we’ve sometimes found ourselves doing the same job as others because there hasn’t been much co-ordination of activities, so spend some time researching who else is working in a space you want to target.


Jillian Thomas, Future Life Wealth Management managing director

Over the past year, much of the elderly population has really struggled with isolation.

During the first lockdown, I listed all our vulnerable clients and, over two hours every lunchtime, I’d pick up the phone and talk to them. I found that people needed prescriptions picking up, dogs walking and other pieces of support.

But we also found at that point of time there were people who didn’t realise they actually had early onset dementia, which we’re finding is an issue with a generation of elderly people now due to isolation.

Our team of 10 has now adopted 10 vulnerable clients each and they will phone two of them every day of the week to make sure they’re okay. We’ve won new clients off the back of this, although this isn’t why we’re doing it.

I’d encourage companies that work with these types of people to put staff through courses such as dementia awareness because it can help them provide some amazing support to others.


Dr Nik Kotecha, Morningside Pharmaceuticals and Randal Charitable Foundation founder and chairman

Business and the charitable sector both play different, but equally important, roles in helping communities to thrive.

If both these very different sectors could better align and support each other, there would undoubtedly be great benefits to both, as well as society in general.

As we hopefully edge towards the end of the pandemic, companies should be seen as partners in tackling problems faced by our communities. This doesn’t just mean jobs – it has to be more than that.

Plenty of businesses want to do their bit and support charities through corporate partnerships. This can often involve company employees taking part in voluntary activities and this kind of mass participation exercise can have a big impact.

The sector’s role has never been more important in supporting local people, who will be our employees and their families, neighbours and friends.

Charities need our skills, entrepreneurship and business knowledge to help them build their own sustainable income generating models.

It’s important to have a mindset from the beginning that making an “impact” with charitable support isn’t about how much publicity can be generated, but the positive effect it will have to people directly on their doorstep.

With this in mind, it’s perhaps best not to focus on the return on investment and to separate an organisation’s CSR targets from the overall business aims.

I know through my own business and the Randal Charitable Foundation that the best way to help is to seek out smaller, local charities that will likely know many of the people we work with and the communities we live in.

Strategic collaborations, where companies commit over a period of years to help, can lead to genuine long-term partnerships. This can be a win-win for both parties as charities benefit from more sustainable funding and tap into the expertise found around the boardroom table.

Supporting charities also chimes with the values of companies that employees want to work for. They rightly have higher expectations of their workplaces now and the contribution their employer makes to the world on their doorstep.

It can’t just be a one-off event or fundraising drive – to really work, we need to see long-term partnerships to benefit local communities and business as well.


Iain McKenzie, Mattioli Woods group operating officer

Staff engagement is central to our mission for a fun, fair and rewarding workplace. We also pledge to treasure our communities, and support local and national initiatives.

From a benefits perspective, involving staff in grassroots charity work enables businesses to bring teams together, foster a sense of togetherness and feel motivated.

There’s obviously the sense of giving back, but we also see it as a way of engaging clients because a worthwhile cause can trigger powerful emotional reactions in customers as well as employees.

Of course, there’s the benefits arising from marketing opportunities that result in a strengthened reputation and brand – one that clients could feel a genuine connection with due to a shared sense of compassion with a charitable cause.

Charity events are also a good avenue for staff to network with people they may not ordinarily get in front of, while adding social value activities to company results can be a good mechanism for attracting investment. 


Helen Donnellan, De Montfort University director of business engagement

Universities have been involved with civic engagement and putting something back into their local economies for quite some time. Yet we’ve done a lot of this work without actually explaining to our staff and students what we were tackling.

For example, 100,000 children in Leicester live in food poverty so how can we, as an organisation, make a difference?

When staff hear these kinds of statistics, it really affects their attitude on how we can deal with a problem they may otherwise be unaware of because they only come into contact with an organisation’s local community for work.

Measuring impact is also crucial and this is something we started doing about 18 months ago for our voluntary work, which includes running a food bank and teaching STEM subjects.

We’ve done some work that’s shown us how young people genuinely feel a strong drive to work somewhere with shared values so communication is important, while we’ve found they have a very local and global approach.

They’re interested in big enablers like the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but they want their volunteering and charitable activity to be local – and to have an impact on those global issues.

Going forward, it would also be useful to think about how businesses can give back to other businesses.

There’s lots of smaller companies that are embedded in their communities, but are struggling to do work that has a big impact on their local area.


Mick Halloran, Capital One director of external affairs

Ever since Capital One arrived in the UK more than 20 years ago, we’ve been active in the communities where we operate, including Nottingham.

But about five years ago, we took a step back to analyse what impact our activity was having.

We'd done amazing things but realised some engagement was piecemeal – for example, our associates would support a community facility by painting it.

There's nothing wrong with that, and we still do this type of activity, but we recognised we should invest more in being truly transformative to the people we engage.

That made us think about scale versus investment. We might not always be able to help thousands of people with our programmes, but spending longer than an hour or two with 100 people is more transformative to their lives.

So we’ve developed longer-term strategic programmes with relatively strict criteria for who we’ll engage with. We particularly focus on helping disadvantaged young people who wouldn’t otherwise get these opportunities.

From our associates’ perspective, it's incredibly motivating for them to feel like they work for a company that contributes to its community.

We also see younger people coming into the organisation at graduate and junior levels are increasingly asking explicitly what the purpose of our company is beyond the core role we serve. This makes it very important from both a recruitment and retention perspective.

Having this strategy in place and the values of our company allowed us to move quickly when lockdown began. We built on existing relationships with school partners and charities to provide hundreds of laptops to the people they identified as being at risk of digital exclusion and isolation.


Debbie Duro, Rolls-Royce community investment manager

Over many years, we’ve followed a strategy to support the areas in which we operate, as our ethos is to be a good neighbour and have a real duty of care.

But we’ve had to ensure we can engage our leaders and employees effectively with the community investment work we do.

No matter who we’re working with or the activity we’re running, it must provide mutual benefit and deliver a return on investment.

Giving back doesn’t just provide opportunities for community engagement, but it also helps to develop skills and competencies within teams.

Increasing communication also helps to improve teamwork and leadership behaviours.

Throughout the past year, we’ve maximised the opportunities to share our community work internally – but also linking it in with how it’s helped our employees achieve great things or build relationships within teams.

There’s so many things we can encourage our employees to get involved with, whether it’s becoming mentors, trustees, governors, STEM ambassadors, coaches or inspirational speakers, to develop their own personal skills as well as give back.

Our main focus right now is about working with leadership so it can support staff to do these things.


This article originally appeared in the April edition of Business Network magazine, which can be read here