Community and corporate responsibility: a view from the small side of town

I strive to be a good business owner, a good community member, and a good father. Sometimes, one opportunity provides the perfect way for these identities to overlap.

Image Credit: Ales Krevik / Unsplash

Over the last six months, I’ve been working with one of our local schools (where my son attends) to help with their bi-annual Fair.

What does this look like?

Part of my role has been:

  • approaching locally-owned businesses, (typically small);
  • and asking them to contribute towards the running costs of the fair.

The support each sponsor contributes both directly and indirectly improves learning outcomes in this local school. Most of these businesses employ students at some stage. For each business, a large part of their revenue comes from the support of local families who are involved in the school.

Contributions can cover a range of levels — from donating a free cup of coffee all the way through to providing cash donations.

The good news is: there are some businesses that are more than happy to contribute. I was, however, overwhelmed by the number of businesses that responded with apathy or even open hostility towards supporting anyone outside of their own business.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. I’ve previously been involved in raising community support and awareness for charities and education programs, facing a similar level of apathy towards external causes.

In the new world order of startups and community minded business, it’s virtually essential to find a cause to champion.

‘Social-minded enterprise’ is the buzz phrase of the new generation — and with good reason. For a long time, large corporations have posted increasing profits (read: made money) while simultaneously making goods and services difficult to reach for those who are not as well off in our society (read: exclusive services, and only if you can obviously afford them — even when their products meet basic needs). The new social conscience is a critical driver in business, and proven to influence purchasing decisions, because so many of us strive to be ethical consumers.

Even though this isn’t a brand new concept, my casual observation is this:

There is a lack of considered embrace of community and socially aware behaviours in small and medium businesses within Australia.

I’m not trying to generalise; some businesses may have a focus on their immediate environment and social impact. However, very few businesses that began before the social enterprise boom have successfully adapted their practices with a socially-aware ideology that supports their ongoing business operations.

And even when they place value on creating ethical decisions in how they engage with consumers, their community, and the wider environment — they aren’t very good at communicating externally or internally why those values matter.

In very basic terms: how many companies can express what they do to improve other peoples’ lives, and specifically why they do it?

At Real World, we’ve felt this struggle ourselves. Since founding Real World in 2001, I’ve been passionate about using our areas of expertise in service of the community and world we live in. This business does not exist solely for my benefit.

This has manifested itself in a variety of ways.

We’ve worked with a number of charities, not for profit and religious organisations delivering IT services, communications solutions, software development and professional advice below our normal market rates — enabling them to direct more funds to their frontline work.

We’ve made decisions to turn down (or pick up) work that didn’t make strict commercial sense, because we could see the value of our engagement extending beyond $ signs at the end of our balance sheet. We’ve allowed our staff to take time to invest in worthwhile causes, including fundraising for charities, or assisting our clients with work. Each of these actions are meaningful for the organisations that we’ve worked with, and we’ve been glad to contribute and help.

Over the years, we’ve sponsored children through Compassion — ensuring that they can get access to the education, healthcare and social services that they need. This reciprocally benefits their families and communities. The girls and boys we sponsor are growing up to become mature adults, and helping to break the poverty cycle in their local areas.

We’ve supported organisations working with children or adults with disabilities who need extra care or employment support.

We’ve assisted our local Rotary groups as they provide entertainment and relief for children in our local hospitals.

We’ve offered our services to church organisations as they improve the health and wellbeing of local communities through the provision of chaplains, further education, and welfare services — usually where Government services have not made inroads.

When we contribute in these ways, we know we’re often just one more name on a long list of donors providing material support to people who need it. But equally, we know that without our support, one less person will get those 15 minutes of respite. One less life will have access to an education. One less school child will have access to the learning support they need to be the leader of tomorrow. While our support may often go un-noticed to the rest of the world, we know that it’s making a difference.

But it’s not easy. As a small business, our contributions usually aren’t enormous. Even given that, when we sit down and look at expenses and margins, our community support comes under a level of necessary scrutiny. It would often be easier to discontinue our support of these external organisations and redirect the funds to operational projects, research and development, or rewarding our staff.

Even though that would be easy, in my view it would be wrong.

As a human, I see it as essential for me to do whatever we can to support those in our community who need it. And these values extend into the way I approach business.

Sometimes that means working with local schools to help them achieve educational or learning goals. Sometimes that means providing support to community projects that benefit a particular society or area. Sometimes that means taking a project at a lower margin to allow an organisation to redirect funds to other frontline services.

As someone who can make a difference, I see this as my responsibility.

It’s my responsibility because I care about the future of my community. I want my children and those in future generations to have better opportunities for education and development than my generation had. I want families experiencing sickness or illness to be able to find joy, even in the midst of their ongoing pain and sorrow.

These are essentially human values; and they’re necessary to bring into our process of conducting business. And this social conscience is already combined with my strongly held conviction guiding me to look to the needs of others before my own, and to love my neighbour as I love myself — essential qualities which reflect the character of my heavenly father.

But what does this have to do with small businesses, particularly in Australia?

In 2014 with a population of over 20 million people, Australia had nearly 2 million small businesses, making up over 97% of all Australian businesses as a whole. One third of Australia’s national income from private business was generated through small businesses, and they employed close to 43% of private sector workers in Australia. It’s undeniable that Small Business is a cornerstone of the Australian economy.

While I can’t prove this via hard statistics, it appears anecdotally that many of these businesses do not provide a substantial contribution back to the communities in which they live, work and engage with.

I imagine a world where I’m wrong. I imagine a world where this same 97% of Australian Businesses contribute to their local communities.

Not every business should sponsor and/or volunteer for their son’s school fair. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for community and corporate contributions. It’s just a small slice of my own personal experience, from the helm of Real World, with the intention to positively impact my immediate environment.

Individually, each of our contributions may only be small — but they would be a powerful force for change when added together. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

I imagine a world where businesses would help socially disadvantaged members of their community, and — by doing so — contribute to a higher quality of life. They would become vehicles for compassion and grace. They would foster education, awareness, and a stronger and healthier community. And they would achieve these objectives by marrying their social impact goals to their daily business practices. These essential human qualities would radiate from our lives in a holistic, regenerative permeance that becomes the vehicle for a better world.

As the next generation of Australians rises to prominence in our business world, I hope that this vision might become a reflection of reality.

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