Stephen Howard, CEO of BITC, writes about the programmes he has helped establish and run, bringing employees out of the office and into communities. It is a vital process, that allows organisations to better understand their customers needs, and solve problems from from different angles.
The definition of good business has changed over the years, with companies becoming increasingly interested in new models, and new ways of demonstrating the positive impact they can have in the areas they work and operate.
In late 2010, 10 businesses joined with Business in the Community to pilot an idea which we thought had the potential to transform how businesses engage with communities. The idea was Business Connectors, a model which places senior business professionals into areas of deprivation to address local needs.
We didn’t know if it would work, or how companies would react to our rather big ask – to give us their talented employees, for a year, on full pay, with no agenda other than to add value to our most deprived communities – but over the last four years, we have seen more and more companies ‘getting out there’ to transform their communities, people and future business strategies.
Since with thanks to generous funding from The Big Lottery Fund, 220 people from a range of organisations, at a range of levels, have taken part, giving them completely fresh experiences in the community outside the everyday demands of the business world. More than £31 million in support has been leveraged into 112 communities where there is greatest need and, crucially, community-focused organisations have received support on more than 8,000 occasions.
The power of time spent outside these organisations cannot be overestimated. I know from personal experience how important it is to see what’s going on in the community and to get out of the office regularly. My journey to responsible business began when I was a CEO of a business and was invited to join other senior leaders on a Seeing is Believing visit, where I was taken out into the community to witness first-hand the power of business to change the lives of people who had experienced homelessness. This had a profound impact on me, and my understanding of the role of business to create change. It was a huge part of shaping my long relationship with Business in the Community.
We have now had 9,000 business leaders join us on Seeing is Believing visits learning, as I did, about complex issues such as homelessness, youth unemployment and the low carbon economy from individuals, charities, social enterprises and businesses. What has been most powerful is seeing the impact of these experiences, not just on how leaders think, but in many cases on how they operate their core businesses, and how they decide what products and services to produce.
Both these programmes point to the value that companies are seeing in sending staff out on experiential learning opportunities, not just for personal development, but to also bring the learning back into the business to enhance products, services and delivery.
GlaxoSmithKline have started to think about this for themselves. Their Pulse programme is another example, where on-the-ground experience helped an employee volunteer understand how the supply chain for vaccinations could be shortened, ultimately helping to save more lives. By sending a member of staff to the developing world, they were able to diagnose and fix a problem that was not visible to head office.
Lloyds Banking Group’s Digital Champions initiative is another great example. The scheme empowers staff to get out into communities to help people and organisations use the internet and improve digital skills.
Our Business Connector in Swindon, Ian Browne, recently enlisted the help of volunteers and more than a dozen Lloyds Digital Champions to support older members of Horizons, a local wellbeing group in Eldene. The Champions are offering monthly sessions, helping older members of the community make the most of their devices and how to get online safely.
I have heard from Ian that staff involved have gained invaluable insight into their customers rapidly: they’re finding out how to speak the language of different age groups, and how to develop the right customer approach to fit this in an ever-evolving digital landscape.
Local insight gained from time spent in communities can create real change. Furthermore, when these individuals go back to their business they are equipped with learnings and experiences on-the-ground that can help them to build a culture within their business that is more responsive, collaborative and resilient to a changing world.
Today nearly 50 seconding organisations have been part of the Business Connector movement across England and Scotland. It is helping deepen businesses understanding of their customer base at grass roots level and creating new spaces in which to drive innovative ideas.
Wherever I look, it becomes clear that the future of doing good business lies outside, in the community. The need for this interweaving of business and society has never been more apparent than in the wake of last week’s historic referendum, the results of which left much of the UK feeling divided with a tangible sense of a disconnect among local communities. Business has a real opportunity to demonstrate that it can continue to work collaboratively to address this divide and to tackle shared challenges – both here and in communities across the globe.
How can businesses engage with their local communities? Have you taken part in Business Connectors or Seeing is Believing? Are you involved in another scheme to bring companies closer to communities? Let us know your thoughts and write us a blog, comment below and tweet @BITC and #FutureGood