Kevin Curley: We need to make it easy for firms to work with us

Organisations in Watford and Birmingham have come up with innovative new ways to encourage businesses to support local voluntary action, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I accepted an invitation from Bob Jones, chief executive of the Watford & Three Rivers Trust, to speak at his recent conference on new approaches to funding for local charities. One of my themes was the need to develop relationships with the private sector, recognising that the people who run local companies are frequently overwhelmed by requests for donations that usually end up in the bin. If we are to get support from the private sector, we need to understand what companies need from us and make it easy for them to work with us.

Jones was already ahead of me. The Watford Compact 2014 is unusual for bringing all three sectors together within the principles of corporate social responsibility defined by ISO 26000. This is the international standard published in 2010 that guides businesses on ethical practice and is increasingly being used as a measure of their overall performance. The afternoon of the Watford conference was devoted to a speed-dating session in which people from 20 local companies met leading local charities and explored the scope for new joint work. The Watford & Three Rivers Community Fund was launched in December, with strong backing from the private sector.

For several years, the leading example of new approaches to working with the local private sector has been Tameside4Good, created by Community and Voluntary Action Tameside. This scheme makes it easier for businesses to help local good causes through the giving of time and skills, money and resources. Amy Watson, the development officer responsible for the scheme, told me that its achievements in the past two years included raising £54,600 for local groups, placing 70 new volunteers and persuading several businesses, including a bakery and a garage, to donate a percentage of every sale to the scheme. So successful is Tameside4Good that the product has now been sold to councils for voluntary service in Sefton, Wigan, Chelmsford and Coventry.

Another sector leader is Birmingham Voluntary Service Council, whose approach to business involvement emphasises volunteering, team challenges, skills exchange and the recruitment of charity trustees from local companies. I especially like the strapline "Become Richer - Work for Nothing", which it uses to encourage volunteering. BVSC has invested heavily in its business partnerships. Jess Gray, its corporate social responsibility development worker, told me: "We create conversations between the private and community sectors. As a result, our sector gets access to new resources and skills. We have a hands-on approach to local businesses, helping them to develop bespoke community investment strategies."

In a 2013 study of how small and medium-sized enterprises in Bradford and York related to their communities, Tom Levitt, the former Labour MP and founder of Sector 4 Focus, a consultancy that advises on cross-sector partnerships, found "no coordination, little local leadership and no passionate advocacy of the business case for them to engage in the community". I think that's changing quickly now. Where there is strong sector leadership, businesses are being drawn into support for local voluntary action. We now have examples of good practice and the tools to produce local change.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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