How SMEs can engage in social responsibility programmes

How SMEs can engage in social responsibility programmes

Social responsibility programmes do not require corporate-sized teams or budgets, argues Lisa Henshaw from Fourth Day

Corporate social responsibility has come a long way, with community outreach and sustainability becoming standard practice for most well known business leaders. Companies like Google have been praised for their contributions to society as a whole, which is certainly worth applause. But giving something back should not be the preserve of large corporates – there are nearly 5 million SMEs in the UK, employing nearly 60% of the workforce. We should be encouraging this sector of the business world to champion CSR – and celebrating the successes of those that do.

The term corporate social responsibility can itself prove daunting to a small business owner with limited resources. But a programme does not require corporate-sized teams or budgets.

Here are some tips and examples of how SMEs can implement a successful social responsibility programme.


• Find a champion As with any business initiative, social responsibility needs someone to drive it. Most SMEs can’t spare a person whose sole job it is to run a programme, so tap into team members who are passionate about it and make it an additional part of their role. Their energy will help to attract others to get involved, but don’t forget to make sure the programme has the support and buy-in of the management team.

• View it as an investment in the business Even if it’s not a full-time role, allocating staff members’ time during working hours can cause concern for some managing directors and owners of SMEs. But don’t panic – developing a strong responsibility programme is actually an investment in the business.

Engaging with the community helps to extend your business network, opening up doors for new business opportunities. High-powered business executives are often trustees of charities, so it’s not unusual to find yourself at a conference or drinks party with the head – or former head – of a major UK company. Community engagement can also help give you an edge over competition. Ethical and socially responsible companies are more attractive organisations for many businesses to work with and having a programme in place can be huge asset in the procurement process for any company looking to work with the government or public sector.

• Define your programme and set realistic goals Social responsibility, like its larger corporate sister, means something different to everyone. Focus your programme on what makes the most sense to your business. If you’re passionate about supporting education, theatre or local charities, these should be at the heart of your initiative. Equally, if sustainability is an important part of your business, focusing on reducing your carbon footprint is a good first step. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the important thing is to not spread yourself to thinly – start small. You can always expand your initiative.

• You’re not alone out there Even a champion or team of them with the best will in the world will not have time to do their day job and keep a social responsibility programme running all of the time. As anyone who works in an SME will know, doing business is all about working with complementary partnerships. It works the same way for SR.

There are plenty of organisations out there who can support your responsible business objectives. Local social enterprises, like London-based business improvement district Better Bankside, exist to connect local businesses, charities and residents. Better Bankside also links local businesses to wider community sustainability and CSR initiatives, providing additional resource, opportunity and numbers to help smaller business to engage in these activities.

Business in the Community is another example. Aimed at the larger end of the SME scale, the charity has local offices throughout the UK and can help organisations structure their CSR efforts and initiatives, linking them to wider business objectives and initiatives.

• Measure success and celebrate it “The most important advice I would give to anyone setting up a CSR programme is to set realistic goals and targets,” says Ellie Thouret, who helps run the CSR programme at marketing solutions SME, APS Group. “We have found that our employees who participate in our programmes provide a great source of incentive for others to get involved. They will come back from mentoring a child at the local academy and talk to their colleagues about how amazing it was. Start with small goals and work toward them – momentum will grow as the word gets out.”

Case study
APS Group employs 580 people across multiple sites and has formalised its CSR programme over the past two years. Environmental responsibility and supporting the local community have been part of APS’s business ethos since it was founded, so developing a formal programme has always made sense for the organisation, especially as it grew. Not having enough resources to hire a specialised CSR team, APS found champions within its own team – extending the opportunity for all of its employees to volunteer their time to help manage the programme.

APS has an overarching responsibility group that meets quarterly and reports to the board. The group is comprised of two working groups, each with between six and eight participants: one dedicated to workplace and community, which focuses on community and employee development; and the second, environment and the marketplace, which looks after sustainability issues and a responsible supply chain. APS uses Business in the Community’s model for responsible business and works with the organisation on developing best practices.

APS has already achieved a number of milestones with its programmes. Its community initiative at Stockport Academy near its headquarters involves more than 20 employees acting as mentors to students. At its Edinburgh office, between five and 10 staff regularly participate in the Aegon UK Breakfast Club at local Colinton Primary School, preparing healthy breakfasts and reading to students.

On the sustainability side, the company has implemented a supplier management programme to ensure that suppliers have implemented sustainability policies ranging from the amount of packaging they use to managing their delivery vehicles to reduce unnecessary trips. APS’s stringent policies have served it well in making the company a model to other businesses, but also in winning government contracts. In this financial quarter alone, APS has been selected in six categories for local government frameworks including Manchester City Council.

“As a mid-sized company, formalising our CSR programme has helped us to develop and manage it, making responsibility a key part of the framework of the business,” says Thouret. “The programme continues to expand and contribute to the success of our company, making APS a great place to work and a responsible organisation to do business with. There is no reason why other SMEs cannot achieve the same level of success.”

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