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Oli Barrett MBE: Let's connect companies & causes to create social change… and commercial benefits

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Why community engagement is great for businesses

This is an idea from our Securing Britain: Responsible Business series – discover more ideas now

When we heard Charlie Mullins (founder of Pimlico Plumbers) suggesting that British kids should repair their own schools, we knew this was an idea with our name on it. We also called Wickes, the DIY chain. In the end, it was youth clubs instead of schools, and today over 1,000 young people have gained a qualification in 59 locations. Wickes, across 25 stores, have helped us to sign up over 300 trade mentors, many of whom have found new recruits and new business for themselves. The retailer has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of kit and materials to clubs chosen by London Youth, a UK charity. The project (Volunteer It Yourself, or VIY) has won awards and been supported by the Big Lottery Fund. It’s a simple example of how a business can make a difference.

Too few of Britain’s businesses have worked out how their community engagement can also be great for their business. Others don’t think creatively enough about which assets they can contribute, often offering little more than a logo and some cash. Every month I meet brands which are struggling to develop meaningful partnerships, from funders to local causes. It’s time to raise the bar.

“Too few businesses realise how much community engagement can benefit them”

Seven years ago, I left a school in North London more than a little frustrated. Sick of giving talks, I wanted a challenge – a fresh, engaging idea. That was when I read about a vicar in Suffolk. Rather than asking for donations, he had given members of his flock a ten pound note. They had gone on to raise thousands in return. Luckily, I had the back of an envelope handy, and the numbers I wrote down were suitably simple – one month, ten pounds, ten thousand students. I called the vicar and, with his blessing, Make Your Mark With A Tenner was born. Over 150,000 students later, I wake at night wondering how we can make the project 10 times bigger. The answer, of course, is through the support of business.

We need to think far more ambitiously about the role that Britain’s companies can play in solving our social problems. We cannot and should not leave it to governments and charities. This country is full of innovative schemes which lack the support and connections they need to grow. My one message to governments is to find these schemes. Approach their founders and ask them if they have the appetite to scale up. If they do, ask them to identify the top three things that stop them from growing. Distil the answers, and then do everything in your power to remove these blockages.

The lessons I have learned are straightforward. Don’t be afraid to think big. Stick to simple, scalable ideas. Forge unlikely alliances. And when you hear people ranting about something, don’t be afraid to call them up, and offer to help.

As a co-founder of StartUp Britain, I’m no stranger to starting things. That said, the single most powerful thing that Britain’s businesses can do today to change the world is to identify what is currently working, and offer to help. Yes, bring your chequebook; however don’t forget your people, your products, your offices, your customers and your expertise. We’re in business because we enjoy solving problems. We’re creative, we’re passionate – we know how to make things happen. Let’s get out there.

Oli Barrett is the founder of Cospa and Tenner and co-founder of StartUp Britain

This is an idea from our Securing Britain: Responsible Business series – discover more ideas now

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