Small (business) is Beautiful

Tom Levitt, author of ‘The Company Citizen’, outlines why responsibility and sustainability are important for businesses of all shapes and sizes. This piece was written for Heart of the City, the City of London Corporation’s excellent programme for SMEs in the City.


‘How do we do Corporate Social Responsibility when we’re not a big corporate?’ was a common response to some research I did a while ago which asked how smaller businesses engage with the community. ‘And what would this CSR look like, anyway?’

The vast majority of Britain’s businesses have fewer than 20 employees. Such companies may have no human resources specialist, no strategy for community engagement and certainly no ‘CSR department’. But they’re aware of the community around them and many simply take it for granted that some form of community engagement is both expected from them and the ‘right thing to do’. In that sense, they gain from some of the benefits of engagement – though not all.

Very few businesses would say ‘no’ to a group of employees who wanted to raise money for a charity in company time, a school requesting a raffle prize or a good cause in need of some product which the company had classified as waste or surplus, but these are all reactions to external prompts. It helps to get on the front foot, not just to anticipate future requests.

It helps to have a strategy. If environmental responsibility (which, by the way, can pay for itself sooner than you’d think) demands a plan then community engagement does too. No sensible company would want to reduce its carbon footprint by responding to every new idea that comes along, switching electricity providers every time the tariffs change.

The benefits of such a strategy to those on the receiving end are clear: they’re usually charities who get money, goods, even volunteer time and skills which they wouldn’t otherwise have, though there are tangible gains for the company, too.

Such as: where an employee believes that their employer cares about the same causes as they do then a bond of engagement is created or strengthened which will benefit the company. Where that cause is related to the mission of the company the bond’s even stronger; engaged employees remain with their company longer, are better ambassadors and more productive than those who are disengaged.

For example, I met an employment agency that asks all of its staff to spend up to three working days each year volunteering to work with unemployed people, including graduates, in a deprived community. They teach them to write a CV, help them practice job interviews and, through building relationships, witness first hand how their effort is creating opportunities for people worse off than themselves. In the four years since the company took this initiative staff turnover has fallen, job satisfaction scores have risen and people have come to the agency looking to work there because of the caring reputation it has created. Similarly, trained staff at local branches of Boots Opticians spend time volunteering to help pre-school children learn to read, whilst informally checking their eyesight and referring them for free treatment where necessary. This scheme has won awards and creates huge levels of job satisfaction. I know of a steel stockholder with four employees where the team spends time every month carrying out odd manual jobs, such as repairing fences, for local good causes; and a garage mechanic who openly adds £1 to every invoice, creating a pot which he donates to a local charity each month.

Then, of course, there’s the charity fundraiser – the cake bake day, the cycle ride, the sponsored walk. Whilst these can certainly raise money they don’t create that sense of engagement and purpose in quite the same way.

There’s evidence that skilled volunteering takes place even within the very smallest companies, which are often ‘time poor’. An accountant might audit a small charity’s books for free in a couple of hours, a better use of her busy time than half a day litter picking or digging an old person’s garden. Skilled volunteering itself – updating a charity’s web site, perhaps, servicing a youth club’s minibus – can help an inexperienced employee gain valuable skills. Even listening to children read in schools can teach an employee ‘soft’ skills like empathy, patience, clarity, essential for a career in customer service.

However, responding to such requests can cause chaos if the company gets a reputation as a ‘soft touch’! This is where a strategy helps: how much money will the company donate to good causes this year? How many days will it allow for team building exercises (as team volunteering can be, when handled properly) and how much company time will be spent on volunteering and honing skills in aid of good causes?

So that’s environmental and employee engagement sorted. But more can be done! By paying the Living Wage as a minimum (a calculated level of decency slightly above the legal minimum) employee engagement is boosted again, even amongst those above that pay grade. Adopting the Prompt Payment Code, pledging to pay all valid bills within 30 days, helps supply chains – as many SMEs know to their cost, complaining legitimately that too few big customers acknowledge this. And building a broad, ongoing relationship with a local school, contributing to their curriculum, sponsoring their sports team kits, offering them apprenticeship places, can be a cost effective way of adding a new dimension of responsibility to an SME’s work.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Reducing plastic usage, recycling better, using cleaning products that don’t damage the environment, sourcing materials using fair trade and ethical criteria, such as sustainable timber, and using the Social Value Act to your advantage represent the next layer. And you wouldn’t want to be sourcing from a supplier that kept staff under conditions of ‘modern slavery’…

Social and environmental responsibility are really just common sense, looked at through the lenses of strategic and long term thinking. ‘The Company Citizen’ celebrates companies that take their citizenship role seriously – companies of all sizes, shapes and natures.

Next time, your company’s good work could be featured!