Kevin Curley: Corporates must do better than a £5 voucher or some tins of paint

As the public sector reduces support for local charities, it's time for the private sector to raise its game, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

It seems I have been talking about how to secure more private sector support for local charities since I first joined the sector in 1972.

Back then, when I worked at York Community Council, the confectionery firm Rowntree's was a good supporter of York groups with small donations and gifts for events. Two decades later, Rolls-Royce provided free places on its in-house training courses when I was at Derby CVS. But the help provided was small and these companies were the exceptions. Today, most local charities receive little support of any sort - cash, help in kind, volunteers or capacity building - from local companies.

This year's UK Civil Society Almanac by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that £747.6m of corporate grants in 2009/10 went to voluntary organisations - more than 10 per cent down on the previous year - but the think tank the Centre for Social Justice says three-quarters of this money goes to the largest 3 per cent of UK charities. This is how it feels at local level: the hopes of volunteer fundraisers are soon dashed when appeal letters to 100 local companies produce a £5 gift voucher, some tins of paint and an offer of 20 employees for a day to "do a project" with no time to plan.

So I was pleased when last year's Giving White Paper announced the government's ambition "to stimulate a step change in giving". Since then, Nick Hurd, the civil society minister, has listened to what the London Benchmarking Group says needs to change. The LBG promotes corporate community investment and provides a model for measuring both the level of company support and the impact achieved. Pam Webb of the insurance firm Zurich, a leading member of the LBG, says companies need what she calls "brokerage" - people in the firm to help staff to volunteer or fundraise in business time. They also need people who know the local sector so that any volunteering is what the community needs. Zurich achieves this by funding the Zurich Community Trust, resulting in 6,000 volunteering days a year and more than £1m in donations for local groups.

LBG members such as Zurich, Linklaters and Deloitte know there is a strong business case for this sort of community investment. Staff are proud of their companies' community work, corporate profile and reputation improve, recruitment is enhanced and the need for new products emerges. So how do we get more companies to behave like these?

Nobody I talk to in corporates thinks tax incentives would make much difference. But the government could fund more opportunities for businesses to showcase their community work and explain why they invest in internal infrastructure and brokerage. The next step for big companies is to involve the small and medium-sized enterprises in their supply chains, giving them access to the community brokerage they have created. As the public sector reduces support for local charities, it's time for the private sector to raise its game.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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