The need and opportunity for business and civil society to work together

By Paul Drechsler CBE

I am proud to be a business leader, and I passionately believe that business is a force for good. I believe that business, in partnership with government and civil society is the prime source of solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. Business is also a brilliant source of new ideas, new opportunities and most of all highly motivated and talented people.

Business is above all about people; citizens, members of society and often volunteers. In my experience, there is a direct correlation between pride in a company and that company doing good for society. As a business leader, I have always found that employees and colleagues welcome the opportunity to make a difference in their local area, region or at a national level. Indeed, during my time in the Wates Group, I recall that often our greater challenge was to persuade our colleagues to return to work after volunteering as they enjoyed engagement with local schools so much. In Bibby Line Group – another great U.K. family business – there was widespread employee engagement in the ‘Giving Something Back Programme’. More recently through my involvement with Greencore Plc, I have been hugely impressed with the scale of donations of surplus food the company undertakes via ‘Fareshare’. There is benefit and potential in every business to support and partner with civil society.

I have also had the privilege of chairing a number of charities where I have been struck by the fact that they would not have succeeded, survived or prospered without significant charitable donations and volunteers from business – including the construction sector’s support for The Prince’s Trust, and the private sector’s support for Business in the Community and Teach First. The latter is – in my view – probably the most significant positive intervention in education in the past 20 years, and a brilliant example of the power of partnership between civil society, government and business.

We are the sixth richest country in the world. Yet in London alone, 400,000 children everyday have the same thing for dinner: nothing – a challenge being addressed by The Felix Project and many others nationally. The facts on education inequality are of great concern – to a great extent, if you start as a child in poverty in this country, you are most likely to be poor adult.

It does not have to be this way. It definitely should not be so in the sixth richest country in the world.

The Law Family Commission on Civil Society and Pro Bono Economics have set out clearly the scale of the challenge we face to achieve a fairer society. Positively, they have also identified what needs to be done and I totally agree on their findings on the untapped potential of the business community as a source of funding, skills and partnerships for civil society organisations.

I was surprised that the average business donates just £540 to charity, representing 0.06% of turnover. I have come across several family businesses that commit 5% of profit to charitable activities. In the world of ESG, there is a strong case for companies to be judged on the basis of a commitment to charitable giving of 1%+ per annum, and in addition volunteer hours. Many companies support a day or more per annum time off for volunteering, which is both common sense and good business.

I see several ways in which businesses can make a big difference and have a more positive impact on charities by engaging on issues where the business has deep and relevant skills. These align with the report’s findings: businesses can help charities with productivity and organisational effectiveness; provide resources by way of volunteers; help to develop the ‘business case’ for support, funding, clarity on impact and return on investment and in developing partnerships.

In my time working in the USA, I was always impressed with the scale of employee giving (at every level). The USA though, is much smarter and more generous in its tax incentives. We should campaign for much smarter government incentives in the U.K. Just by matching best practice in other leading countries, we could deliver another £5 billion per year. There is a very generous culture in the UK, but we are far from reaching our full potential in terms of impact on civil society, and therefore society as a whole.

The report clearly sets out the power and potential of collaboration between policymakers and public services, businesses and civil society. ‘In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.’ Post-pandemic, in the midst of a cost of living and recession – the need and opportunity has seldom been greater.

This piece was written in response to the publication of the report ‘Unleashing the power of civil society’