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East Midlands Chamber News

The East Midlands: Where good business makes good sense

Much of the discussion in political circles of late is focused on opportunities to reshape the economy as it emerges from the pandemic. Government has told businesses we need to “build back better” and “build back greener”. But one thing less discussed is the opportunity to build back in a way that recognises successful businesses and thriving local communities go hand in hand, writes Chris Hobson, director of policy and external affairs at East Midlands Chamber.

The impact of the pandemic has been uneven in terms of the communities most impacted and, as the economy recovers, there is a chance to demonstrate how that growth can benefit everyone.

The Chamber recently surveyed more than 400 businesses on their approach to community work – corporate social responsibility (CSR) in old-speak – and found that 66% of businesses currently do something they would class as community work. The most popular activity was one-off donations, but companies also offered skills, premises, structured volunteering opportunities and more regular donations.

When asking businesses why they do this, the biggest reasons were emotive – 85% were driven by a desire to “give something back” and 45% had a personal connection to a cause. However, businesses also saw strategic reasons for this work – four in 10 were seeking to build their profile and a quarter viewed it as an opportunity to develop staff. In fact, when asked on a scale of one to 10 how important community activity was to them achieving their overall strategic objectives, the average score given was 5.8. This suggests it’s not just something that people view as a nice thing to do, but is an integral part of their wider business purpose.

And it does make good business sense. In a series of focus groups with members on this activity, businesses told us about the importance of having strong values in attracting and retaining staff, being able to demonstrate their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) credentials when bidding for contracts, and the positive role it played in winning new business.

Maybe not as altruistic as “giving something back”, but developing relationships that both the business and community can benefit from shows the flow of value can go in both directions.

Helping businesses to have meaningful impact in their communities

East Midlands Chamber wants to support much more activity in this space and to do this, we’re asking the following question, which comes in three parts: How do we get more businesses, doing more varied activity, in a more impactful way?

Understanding impact is something that can very quickly become complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. The surest way to ensure work has impact is to make sure it’s what is needed, and this is done through two-way dialogue. Many charities are screaming out for pro-bono support in marketing, HR and other professional skills – but apparently finding trustees with an accountancy background is particularly difficult at the moment.

In terms of more varied activity, financial support will always be essential. But while those one-off donations continue to be invaluable, a large financial services firm in Nottingham told me a more focused, tailored relationship with a community group or cause – involving multiple touchpoints and different activities – can bring much greater value to both parties. It is also more compelling to sustain over the longer term. Businesses need to be supported to focus on an issue and see how they might develop a deeper relationship with that cause.

And finally, how do we get more businesses involved? If 63% of our respondents currently do something, then 37% don’t. When people were asked what the biggest barriers to activity were, 46% said they didn’t have enough resource, 24% were too busy, 20% hadn’t considered it before and a small number were just unsure of how to.

All these issues can be overcome to a greater or lesser degree by making it easy and resource-effective for businesses to get involved, demonstrating the value to their company, and some simple explainers about where to start. There are many organisations – lots in membership – that can help with this and we’ll be looking to form closer relationships with them over the coming months.

Opportunities are presenting themselves

And finally there are those already active but just don’t realise it, like the scaffolding business that told me it doesn’t engage in CSR activity – yet it sponsors a children’s football team, revamped the local community centre for free and offers discounted services to the elderly. It didn’t have a strategy for community engagement because it was something writ large through its own values – which were so obvious to the organisation that it didn’t think to attach a name to this.

And ultimately, this is the opportunity that presents itself as we “build back whatever”. The pandemic has thrown lots of things that people took for granted up into the air. As the economy recovers, there’s a chance for businesses to have a closer look at their values, their purpose and the ways in which they help drive their overall competitiveness and success.

It’s an exciting opportunity and the Chamber will work with all members interested in finding out how they can do more to help create and support the thriving communities across the East Midlands in which we all live, work and play.