Expert advice on becoming a business that gives back

How could your business make a difference to your local community? And, does it make financial sense? Check out our expert interview with the CEO of charity, Community Works to find out.

Last year, just over 589,000 start-ups were launched in the UK. Despite being a huge push for the economy, this influx has made it increasingly difficult for businesses to stand out from the competition. So, what’s the solution?

One increasingly popular trend is to support the local communities that support the businesses themselves. After all, whether it’s company reputation, employee satisfaction or customer appreciation, voluntary work goes far beyond the benefit to the recipient.

Connecting businesses who want in on this trend is Brighton-based organisation, Community Works. We spoke to CEO, Jessica Sumner about why businesses and their communities have a mutual responsibility to one another, and why it’s time more businesses gave back to local voluntary and community groups.

Why was Community Works set up?

Our aim is to create stronger voluntary and community organisations, a more diverse base for volunteering, partnerships that improve opportunities for local people and more sustainable organisations.

What are your guiding principles?

As an independent voice for the voluntary and community sector, we work to challenge oppression and prejudice, and to promote diversity. We value creativity, so we’re always looking for new ways to make community action effective, whilst making everyone feel welcomed and supported.

What’s the biggest change a business can make in their local community?

By working with businesses, we can build our capacity to support local community groups and voluntary organisations, and can offer businesses a way of delivering on their corporate social responsibility ambitions. Through us, they can support their employees who want to volunteer locally. They can also act as mentors, share their expertise by joining the management boards of local organisations, offer pro-bono support to groups in their area or sponsor local events. We believe that a strong society is one where everyone works together. That’s why we connect local businesses with voluntary and community organisations – so they can both benefit.

How does having a CSR initiative effect small businesses?

A better understanding of the needs of the local community helps businesses to become more connected with that community, and so improves their ability to respond to the needs of their customers. Having a clear community initiative also boosts businesses’ reputation, enabling them to form lasting relationships with employees, local authorities and potential investors. Altogether, it sets a business apart from its competitors.

Have you got any examples of CSR programs that led to great things?

We worked with Know My Neighbour, a project to help socially-isolated people to increase their social capital by getting to know their neighbours and involved in the community and local organisations. Know My Neighbour needed to develop ther website to make it more user friendly and effective, and after posting about it on Community Works, we were able to connect them with volunteers from Amex. They developed a new, professional website that’s become a hub for the business and is full of community resources. Amex’s help was invaluable, since it it helped launch Know My Neighbour to the next level. We’ve also continued working with them to launch free fundraising initiatives and help them raise the profile of their good work.

What makes a successful business-charity collaboration?

Establishing a shared ethos helps to form a relationship between a charity-organisation and a business. And, clarifying what needs to be done ensures both parties are working towards the same goal. Being open about the duration, investment and scope of the work, and having the ability to review the nature of the collaboration is also essential to remaining agile and building this relationship. Above all, commitment from both parties is essential.

What are your tips for businesses who have an opportunity to work with external bodies, similar to the way in which Community Works has worked with the Institute for Sustainability and received European funding?

Carry out your due diligence. Read about the organisation and examine the available financial information so you can assess its core values and the relative stability of the organisation.

Build your relationship. The discussions held before the beginning of a collaboration play a key role in agreeing the nature of the partnership and in setting out the expectations of all parties.

Know what you’re hoping to achieve. But, be prepared to be flexible. The other party are experts too and may suggest ideas that lead to a richer collaboration.

What do you wish more businesses were doing and why?

I wish more businesses were getting involved with their local communities. This local interaction and engagement is the perfect opportunity for them to demonstrate and live their values. Secondly, I wish they’d share their expertise with local community groups and voluntary organisations. There is an increased need for more commercial expertise on local management boards to shape the strategic development and increase diverse income streams. Finally, I think a contribution to an organisation’s running costs or assisting with local events would be extremely beneficial – especially as funding is becoming increasingly hard to find.

Want to learn more about Community Works and how they’re transforming communities in the UK’s South? Check out their mentoring programme and find out how you could play your part in supporting a local charity or cause. And, if you’re based elsewhere in the UK, find a Community Works equivalent in your area here.