Corporate social responsibility, people and the bottom line

CSR and charity work are higher up the agenda for many businesses today. The banking and financial services sector, in particular, has seen its reputation tarnished by the financial crisis, and many firms are keen to give something back and restore public trust in themselves.

A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit concluded that corporate citizenship “is becoming increasingly important for the long-term health of companies even though most struggle to show a return on their investment from socially responsible activities. 74 per cent of respondents say corporate citizenship can help increase profits at their company and respondents who say effective corporate citizenship can help to improve the bottom line are also more likely to say their strategy is ‘very important’ to their business (33 per cent) compared with other survey respondents (eight per cent).”

Doing good is about more than profits. More attention should be given to the people we are interacting with when we step away from our desks and get out into the real world. Whether it’s a charity event run in conjunction with colleagues, or engagement with the wider community whom you’d have otherwise never met, it’s those relationships that make the real difference. 

Learning from those we help

In the business community, the focus is always on what we can do to help the people around us. Whether it’s volunteering at a school, helping with a renovation project or mentoring bright young stars, it’s easy to get swept up in what you can do for them. But I’d argue that we get a lot out of the deal too.

I was introduced to the Prince’s Trust by a lawyer friend many years ago, and as well as sitting on the West Midlands Leadership Board for them, I get involved with hands-on mentoring to aspiring Prince’s Trust entrepreneurs.

Personally, I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing individuals develop the confidence to dare to grow their ventures. One young entrepreneur, Arnold, has set up an art business called Spontaneous Portraits, after having a tough upbringing and a spell in prison. He’s been involved with the Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme, which helps unemployed young people start up in business, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on time management and presentation skills.

What do I learn from Arnold? The short answer is a lot. I get perspective and insights from someone just starting out in business, and a reality check about just how tough it can be in the early days. At Bibby Financial Services, we help provide funding to 7,000 small and medium sized businesses around the world. Inevitably, in my role I have to look at the big picture, but speaking to Arnold helps to stop me losing touch with the day-to-day pain points of our new generation of start-up businesses.

Balancing the bottom line

Another benefit of corporate charity work is that it brings people together from right across the business. In October this year I, along with 18 colleagues from across the Bibby Line Group, trekked the Great Wall of China. As well as raising money for our chosen charities, it had another knock-on effect. It removed barriers. 

During those five days of trekking up to seven hours a day I was able to build relationships, to talk to people about the business and learn about what’s going on that you wouldn’t hear about in a more formal setting. While I was struggling to climb up a steep part of the Great Wall it took the CEO mystique away, and people saw me as another human being struggling with a physical challenge. You get honesty you wouldn’t otherwise get.

With my profit and loss hat on, it’s about staff engagement. When you’re doing good things, people are proud to work for you. They’re proud to tell their friends and family about it, and they feel more positively towards the organisation. 

Getting involved needs to be a personal decision. I’ve painted schools, I’ve weeded gardens in hospices. The only thing I don’t do that other people do here is bake cakes because my culinary skills aren’t up to scratch! I play to my strengths and interests, and I encourage my team to do the same.

What holds CEOs back?

When you’re doing charity work that you care about, the natural reaction is to talk about it and share your experiences. But it’s important to get it right. 

Perhaps understandably, many cultures have a cynical radar for anything deemed too ‘try hard’. If you took an advert out saying ‘look what we’ve done’, it could massively backfire. Many leaders are concerned about how to strike this balance subtly and sensitively. In some cases, it could put them off from doing it altogether. 

In my view, the best way to communicate what you’re doing is simply for people to see you doing good. You may be sweating on a fitness challenge or dressed like an idiot, but ultimately it’s these vulnerabilities that can warm people to you. 

It’s up to our leaders to set an example across the business and for generations ahead. CSR isn’t anything new –nor is it going away. But how it is perceived and prioritised can be influenced by a few. And with that power, comes real responsibility.

Simon Featherstone is global CEO of Bibby Financial Services.

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