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Friday, 18 January 2013

Friday Guest Blog - Lessons We’ve Learned About Corporate Social Responsibility

By Matthew Gardiner, Trafford Housing Trust

Trafford Housing Trust is an independent housing company managing 9,000 homes in Trafford. We exist to provide a wide range of quality services in the places where our tenants live. Our vision is "to be at the heart of creating neighbourhoods that are safe, clean, with strong communities and are places that people choose to live in." In building our approach to working with communities we have learned a lot about Corporate Social responsibility (CSR); what makes it work, and perhaps more interestingly why it fails. In our experience CSR is something of an imprecise science, requiring constant fine-tuning and trial and error rather than a bold judgement. We decided to pool our knowledge and share with you 10 of the lessons we've learned about CSR.

1. CSR is not a one size fits all. Just because your competitor goes out once a year and clears up a local ‘grot spot’ does not mean that you should do the same. Make CSR strategic. Make it add to your business. Make it something which excites you. Most of all make it something that is part of what you do, not a burden. CSR should be the way in which your business operates to maximise its positive impact, and to minimise any negative impact.

2. Business doesn't operate in isolation. As the main housing provider in Trafford we are rooted in the local neighbourhoods, our customers create a vested interest which may not be as obvious for your business. But think about the issues which are important to your customers, employees, stakeholders, partners and competitors. What matters to them? Your business does not stop at the car park boundary.

3. Don’t underestimate economies of scale. Just two hours a month spent using the core skills of your workforce can make a huge difference to a community. We offer accountancy and human resources support to a handful of local voluntary groups. For a business our size the workload is small but the impact for those groups is massive. To them it makes a real difference.

4. Small businesses can ‘do’ CSR too. There is a common misconception that CSR is only for large corporations with many bodies to spare. But small, medium sized businesses can be make an equally important contribution and as businesses which rely on reputation and word of mouth the return can often be really valuable. As part of our business engagement programme we are working with SMEs, to inject their professional skills, knowledge and entrepreneurship into community organisations. Five local businesses have offered to deliver training sessions relating to their area of expertise, which over 30 community sector organisations will benefit from. This input will deliver real change as community organisations take this expert knowledge away and implement the new practice in their workplace.

5. Responsibility breeds reputation. Increasingly, both consumers and prospective employees cite a company’s ethical practice as a deciding factor as to whether they will engage with it, or not. More and more it is important to engage on an emotional, not just commercial level. We all know that our workforce is our life blood. A 2011 Business in the Community study cited recruitment and retention of quality employees as a key benefit associated with responsible business practice. Quality employees want to develop in their roles, and providing them with opportunities to do so which compliment the day job can be a real pull, and stay, factor.

6. Don’t automatically reach for the paintbrush. Perceptions of corporate volunteering often involve teams painting community centres or clearing out overgrown gardens. As valuable as these activities can be there is a new breed of employee volunteering growing; ‘skills based volunteering’ uses the professional skills of employees to contribute to the community in a sustainable manner. This model creates benefits for both businesses and community groups but with minimal impact on the day-to-day running of the business. Particularly in demand in Trafford are marketing and communications expertise, business development and planning skills and financial savvy.

7. Open your eyes to soft skill development. Employee volunteering schemes can help to utilise and develop your workforce. A skills matrix we developed for volunteering opportunities in Trafford shows that roles such as fundraising teams, business planning mentor or community project leader help to develop a wide range of soft skills which the day job cannot always provide. These skills include working in a team, effective communication, planning, creative thinking and leadership. All the skills which we write on our job descriptions and look for in the next generation of managers. All available to develop outside of expensive in house training and with a social benefit to boot.

8. Charitable organisations are not only interested in your wallet. As much as they welcome charitable donations, it is the long term relationships which generate the most benefit for both parties. Give them your best and you may be surprised at the benefits.

9. CSR is not a one way street. It’s easy to assume that the community sector is in need but can't give you anything back but in reality the sector has a lot to offer. If you look at the voluntary sector in Trafford it is constantly changing, adapting to meet the customer need, finding new ways of doing things, building strong partnerships and reaching those people in society who are hardest to engage. The influence of these organisations is huge.

10. Nothing beats that warm, fuzzy feeling. Of course corporate social responsibility can’t just be about cold, sterile business matters. It has to be about the greater good, so find an issue to tackle that means something to you and your workforce. How many of your employees have caring responsibilities? How many are affected by mental health disorders either directly or indirectly? How many already volunteer and in what capacity? Ultimately, CSR comes down to people. People doing what is right, for the right reasons to make a difference. Whether big or small your business has huge potential to help to make that difference.

We are still learning and we want to hear from you. What are your experiences of CSR? What is working or not working for your business? Our business engagement officer Aine Graven is hosting an informal discussion group ‘tea and CSR’, if you are interested in coming along or want to learn more contact her on 0300 777 7777 or by email

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