Are civil society and business boundaries blurring?

"We are missing out by not learning from businesses at the same time as they are learning from us", Sarah Mitchell explains in her new blog written for Acevo’s 30 things to think about.

“Be more businesslike” charities are told. And, superficially, we are: we have paid-for services, we try to hire more professional staff and we tender for public sector contracts. But not far below the surface too many of us still distrust private companies and see for-profit employees as an unfamiliar tribe with mysterious values and dubious ethics.

It’s easy to sneer at businesses’ corporate social responsibility as window dressing, but look again: some firms are dramatically changing the way they relate to the communities around them and their own employees. They recognise that charities do not have a monopoly on achieving social good. In fact, profit-generating businesses can – and do – achieve enormous social impact as a core part of their business.

One obvious area is in employment. By offering paid work in areas of high unemployment, firms can provide the sort of bridge out of poverty which charities struggle with. The inspirational K&M Decorating in Islington has had the sort of results with young people not in education, employment or training that most charities can only dream of.

Some companies move further, driven by an increasing demand to demonstrate the impact of non-profit activities. B Corps were established in 2015 and now have 1,400 businesses in their pipeline of applicants for accreditation.

Certified B Corps companies complete a rigorous review of all aspects of their business to ensure that the maximum social impact and the minimum environmental impact are achieved through their work. How many charities do the same?

Companies are moving into areas where charities have failed to act: the small, dynamic Benefacto is aggregating real time volunteering opportunities and selling their intermediary service to large companies. Charities knew a gap existed but failed to act to close it. Why did it take a business to do this?

Businesses are also working together in clusters to respond to significant social problems in London’s new place-based giving schemes, and through the special interest clusters facilitated by intermediaries. Why is it that supposedly cut-throat, competitive businesses can work together to solve these problems when charities seem to find such joint work incredibly challenging?

Can it be because, in fact, charities are failing to evolve and adapt to the changing world? We’re not being fleet of foot and reforming our services to meet changing needs in new ways. Despite all our protestations, do we really have users at the centre of our minds when we develop our services, in the way that businesses put their customers at the heart of their value proposition?

I don’t say this lightly and I recognise that many impressive charities are responding with imagination and investing in future services, but too many of us are not. And I say this because I want great charities to thrive and I think we are missing out by not learning from businesses at the same rate they are learning from us.

We should widen our collective gaze beyond fundraising and bake sales to learn more about how successful companies operate and to understand what else we can glean from them.

For-profit business has much to teach us about systems and processes; about market research and product placement; about developing a powerful value proposition and properly investing in our staff. Just as we can teach many businesses about establishing high levels of staff motivation, high public trust, great interpersonal skills and how to secure a rootedness in their local community.

Sarah Mitchell is director and chief executive of Heart of the City and vice-chair of the Nationwide Foundation.

To celebrate its 30th Birthday, Acevo has collated 30 things to think about from 30 different voices from around the charity sector. These thought-provoking insights aim to inspire and provoke debate about how civil society leaders can make a difference over the next 30 years. To find out more, visit www.30thingstothinkabout.org and talk about it on Twitter with the hashtag #acevo30.

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