Community relationships are the key to a sustainable future (not a marriage of convenience)

Community engagement is a phrase that features increasingly within sustainability strategies today. But what exactly do we mean by it from a business perspective, and do we truly understand the implications?

Community relationships are the key to a sustainable future (not a marriage of convenience)

As I discussed at edie Live this month, modern day businesses must think this through carefully as part of a balanced sustainability agenda, to avoid community relations becoming an empty concept under the banner of ‘CSR’.

Let’s take this back to basics for a moment. The Oxford English dictionary defines the word ‘engagement’ foremost as “a formal agreement to get married”. In the most basic of terms, marriage is an agreed partnership between two parties. While this analogy may seem a little spurious, effective partnerships are utterly crucial when shaping interactions between business and communities.  And open discussions, clear expectations and careful planning are key to that effectiveness.

It is important to put this in context, as the notion of responsible business has changed rapidly in recent years. Forward-thinking, modern businesses go well beyond being seen to do good, or simply defining their social purpose and communicating it well to external audiences. Leading companies are not only making good on their promises, but are demonstrating this sense of purpose in the impact of their activities.  Evidence of success and collaboration is then shown through measurable outcomes – both for businesses and those they serve. The 1,000th work placement we achieved last year through BITC’s Ready for Work progamme shows how this approach can change lives.

Effective, authentic corporate responsibility is therefore a two-way process. It has to offer the potential to mutually benefit all parties involved – whether that’s the communities where you operate, your customers, staff or shareholders. This notion has that word ‘partnership’ at its heart.  It was with this in mind that Carillion commissioned a six-month study to delve into the relationship between businesses and communities in the UK today. What emerged was the need to strive for a true Partnership of Equals; relationships that bring deeper benefits for both sides.

In essence, the research identified a mismatch in interactions between businesses and community groups or charities, with both sides identifying gaps in forming beneficial, sustainable associations. Two-thirds (68%) of respondents felt that businesses were unsure what support to offer charity and community groups, while 57% of those groups didn’t really understand how businesses could best help them. Part of the problem stems from a traditional tendency for relationships to be built simply on money. Whilst financial donations are of course important in supporting community and charity groups, the most effective collaborations have a balance between contributing skills and contributing money. This brings learning and skills development to both sides of the partnership.

Three-quarters (72%) of respondents in our research said that skills-based contributions would benefit their organisation. It makes clear sense that offering up true professional advice, time and skills will offer greater value to resource-poor non-profit groups – for example, deploying a team of accountants to help with a charity’s finances will always be more beneficial than sending them out en masse to paint a fence.

If the right balance is achieved, trust and long-term benefit can help shift the relationship from the traditional give-and-take approach to a model that inspires more ‘give and gain’ interactions. Our research showed that businesses which invest in communities can achieve genuine cultural and commercial gains. Nine out of ten respondents (91%) believed that working with communities benefitted both the employees of the business and the community volunteers in developing new skills. Taking this further still, community engagement was said to bring additional positive benefits through improved job satisfaction, morale and productivity, all of which helping to recruit and retain the most talented people.  

This clear demonstration of the case for responsible business is further echoed by a knock-on boost to social and economic prosperity in local communities. Focusing on supply chain spend, Carillion was able to direct £6 in every £10 of that spend (58%) last year towards local and SME businesses. By further connecting with communities in this way, we were able to create a better environment for long term sustainable business growth. As I explained in my edie Live session, our Sustainability 2020 strategy also contributed £33.8m to our profitability, all of which is discussed in our latest Sustainability Report.

Returning again to our community research, we are committing to rolling out a five-step Partnership of Equals action plan. A major focus of this will be on creating a national network of 50 strategic charity ‘ambassadors’ as well as identifying and trialling an appropriate platform for skills-need matching.  Once we’ve tested the effectiveness of our approach with our national charity partners, this will help to assess the scope and options for a wider skills-to-need brokerage scheme.

Despite many different definitions for sustainability and corporate responsibility, one thread remains the same: businesses that fail to form transparent, meaningful relationships that build public trust are businesses without competitive futures. Now, more than ever, sustainability is not ‘nice-to-have’, it is crucial for long-term business success. It starts in the communities where we work and live, and developing equal partnerships will be key to making such marriages last.

You can read more about our ‘Partnership of Equals’ research here or join the conversation at #businessofcommunity

David Picton

Topics: CSR & ethics
Tags: | edie Live | Engagement | planning | supply chain | sustainable business
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