Going the extra mile: How businesses work with the local social sector

Submitted by Tony Chapman, Director of Policy&Practice, Durham University

The Law Family Commission on Civil Society has been established to do ground-breaking research to enhance the potential of civil society.  Unlike other programmes of research, the Commission aims to explore productive relationships between civil society, the state and the private sector and to find out how to maximise the benefits of current or future interactions.

This report plays its part in the aims of the Commission by exploring relationships between the private sector and the social sector. The commission defines the social sector as those organisations which are located within the realms of civil society that provide support to communities and beneficiary groups. These organisations include, for example, charities, cooperatives and community benefit societies, social enterprises, community businesses and community organisations.

The private sector already makes an enormous direct financial contribution to civil society. The NCVO estimates that this amounts to £2.7bn. But its efforts do not end there, businesses also provide in-kind support, pro bono advice and engage their employees with civil society in volunteering.

The relationship between the corporate social responsibility work of big business and the activities of major charities has already been researched quite extensively. This report does not concern itself with these major charities with annual incomes above £25m. Instead, it focuses on the social sector in more general terms – with a particular focus on small to medium sized organisations which generate the bulk of sector activity – especially at the local level.

Little is known about the volume of financial and non-financial support which business provides to the sector in general and how it is distributed across regions, amongst organisations, or within local areas with particular characteristics. Nothing much is known about the social purposes for which support is given, nor the extent to which this support is valued by social sector organisations.

The aim of this report is to begin to fill some of these gaps in our knowledge by drawing upon data from the Charity Commission register and the long-running Third Sector Trends study. Using these data, the report will offer the first substantive study of business and social sector interactions. It will explore the following issues:

  • The types and extent of business support: define what kinds of financial and non-financial support are currently provided and explore the characteristics of social sector organisations that receive support.
  • What issues does business support: to find out what issues business supports and determine whether businesses and social sector organisations share the same kinds of priorities.
  • The value of business support: reconfigure existing data to produce estimates of the financial contribution of business to social sector organisations and the proxy-values of non-financial support.
  • Regional variations in business support: present estimates on the distribution of business support regionally which takes into account variations in affluence and deprivation and the structure of the local social sector.
  • The quality of relationships with business: from a social sector perspective examine the extent to which businesses are accessible to organisations and invest time in understanding their work.
  • The extent to which organisations feel valued by business: finding out which kinds of social sector organisations are most or least likely to feel that business invests trust and energy in their activities.
  • What the future holds for sector relationships: the prospects for the development of productive relationships are considered from a social sector point of view before and after the Covid-19 pandemic began.

The original findings of this report present a number of challenges to practitioners, commentators and policy makers in the public, private and social sectors that need to be addressed. The most important of which is the potential mis-match between the ethos, purposes and practices of sectors and how that may impede good working relationships.

This research report is exploratory and does not claim fully to answer all the questions it addresses.  This would not be possible currently, because there are gaps in the existing quantitative data that cannot yet be filled. Consequently, the paper concludes with observations on new directions for research on business and social sector interactions and on the improvement of existing data sources.

It is not all about numbers. There is also a need to collect more deeply textured qualitative data on the experiences of businesses and social sector organisations which work together now or could do in future. This paper presents the groundwork to underpin that qualitative research by identifying questions that need urgently to be answered by the Commission.