Opinion

Charlie Mullins: Embrace community spirit and the community will embrace SMEs

4 min read

11 April 2016

The turbulence in the economy over the last few years has, quite rightly, made staying in business the sole focus of SMEs. However, it’s important to not forget the communities in which our businesses are based and the unique position we are in to play a role in improving areas and people’s lives.

Small businesses have a positive impact on communities through job creation and their local economies by working with other local suppliers. But we can do more.

I don’t just mean through charity fundraisers where staff turn up in fancy dress or sell cakes to their colleagues, which are, of course, worthy activities for important causes.

What I’m talking about is something that’s become known as corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is often the preserve of massive companies helping their social conscience.

But it can also be something that SMEs should get involved with to help their communities and, perhaps, even their businesses. A beneficial way to support the community is through supporting social enterprises.

Last week I was invited by First Step Trust to take part in a “job swap” to find out more about how the charity provides work and training opportunities for people excluded from work because of mental health issues or other disadvantages.

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It was an amazing experience to see first-hand what business-focused charities can do to improve employment and training opportunities and provide services that can benefit other firms.

I spent the afternoon at one of the Trust’s Smart Garages in Woolwich for a “trading places” initiative. It was the first time I’d been “on the tools” for some years, but I really enjoyed getting involved with the guys in the workshop.

I couldn’t believe how spotless and well organised the place was – swap their overalls for the Pimlico blues and I could have been walking into my own vehicle workshop.

Everyone there, from the trainees looking to earn themselves skills for future careers, to the people running the place, was inspirational and I’d encourage anyone to have a look at what they’ve got going on. It certainly opened my eyes.

In particular, I was impressed with their latest big project, “Let’s Get Owen Going”, which is a great idea for the charity. Their mechanics are restoring and transforming a battered old camper van, nicknamed Owen, to turn it into a mobile coffee shop and photo booth. 

Not only does the project provide training opportunities now through the restoration, it will provide work for plenty of apprentices in the future keeping it on the road and offering its services at events.

It’ll be hired out to all sorts of events and I’m sure there are lots of businesses out there that would make use of it – I’ve already put our name down! I’ve also offered members of our in-house body shop team to lend a hand to get the paintwork done shortly.

Remembering that we’re in business to make money to support our families and those of our employees, it’s impossible to put more focus on CSR than your own enterprise. Like all things there has to be a balance. 

But I am convinced that it shouldn’t be 100 per cent the other way. Social enterprises, for example, are increasingly forming an essential part of UK business and if firms of all sizes can do something to support them it will strengthen our communities and our economy.

In one of our Feel-good Friday features, we revealed that Bill Gates gave back through the medium of dance as he supported local educational institutions.