How small companies can make a big impact

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Sarah Mitchell, Director of Heart of the City, on how SMEs can support their workforce – and their local community

What do you think of when you hear the words ‘corporate social responsibility’? Big volunteering projects perhaps? Possibly a suspicion that it’s simply PR? Probably you have a picture of a dedicated CSR team with lots of resources. But that’s not how our members go about it. At Heart of the City we support SMEs to take practical steps to run a better business- whether you want to call that CSR or responsible business or simply ‘giving something back’ we have scores of examples of businesses of all sizes making a positive contribution to their community. And to their workforce.

Heart of the City is a small charity and a small business located in the City of London and working with businesses across the capital. We have a unique model of peer-to-peer learning: we get large companies to volunteer the CSR expertise and resources to support companies (usually SMEs) to kick-start their own responsible business activities. Around 100 major firms donate their expertise to us, ranging from Sky to Deloitte, from BT to John Lewis. Also, we are fortunate enough to be led by senior figures from business, including Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and the Lord Mayor of London, both of whom are passionate about supporting more firms to do business better.

We help to translate responsible business into the practical steps that SMEs can take- to improve support for their workforce, to reduce their environmental impact, to check they have a high quality and ethical supply chain, and to support their local community. And it works: last year our new members reported that they had given £500,000 in donations to charities and good causes and contributed over 1,300 hours of volunteer time in their local communities. Some 55% of businesses graduating from Heart of the City’s programme in 2016 reported that they had developed an employee volunteer programme during the year while 74% had established waste reduction and recycling initiatives and 47% reported setting up new ways to help improve their employees’ health and wellbeing. They also reported providing over 120 weeks of work placements for disadvantaged groups in their firms and 100% of companies had worked with community partners based in London, linking their support to the communities where they work.

Small companies can have a big impact, and CSR makes good business sense too. We published research in 2015 which explored why so many SMEs are interested in developing their responsible business activities. We found that smaller firms want to demonstrate that they want to do more CSR activities because these help significantly with staff development and support employee recruitment and retention. The companies that focus on CSR do so because it is aligned with their core business objectives and values, and because it’s a powerful means of engaging their employees.

Formation Architects joined Heart of the City this year on our Newcomers foundation course. This company, based in Lambeth, has 70 employees and joined Heart of the City to build up staff engagement. Less than a year later they are well on their way: their 20-strong staff CSR group is making their businesses as environmentally sustainable as possible and has set up a charity partnership. They are also exploring ways of using their skills as architects to improve local green spaces, working with youth clubs and schools. Formation Architects director, Neil Farrance, told us that since joining the programme they have seen a huge increase in staff engagement: ‘staff are incredibly enthusiastic and we’re already seeing a big difference.’

Responsible business is not and should not be the preserve of larger companies. Heart of the City members are 90% SME and are based right across London from Enfield to Sutton, from Hounslow to Hackney. We welcome SMEs from all sectors into our network and so far more than 650 companies have completed our foundation programme (the Newcomers programme).

Each year through our Newcomers programme we work with 60-70 smaller businesses to help them start to do business better. Our renowned programme has been running for 17 years and includes a series of seminars and networking events, access to a suite of practical online resources, mentoring, consultancy and an invitation to the prestigious annual Lord Mayor’s Dragon Awards.

Graduates of our Newcomers Programme demonstrate that CSR is not the preserve of big business. The mid-sized firm of patent attorneys, Beck Greener, is just one great example of how smaller companies can move quickly and develop projects which make a big difference. Beck Greener staff drew on their backgrounds in science and engineering to offer assistance to local schools in science and technology. From this regular volunteering they grew a new project, a competition supporting and encouraging school pupils to come up with their own engineering inventions. Beck Greener was nominated for a Dragon Award this year for its inventions project.

We know that smaller businesses like Formation and Beck Greener really benefit from a tailored and personalised approach and so at Heart of the City we pride ourselves on our account management with a named expert in the team to help each of our members get the most out of their foundation year with us. Thanks to the support of the City of London Corporation and the City Bridge Trust we are able to offer 60 free spaces on this programme each year. Applications are now open and we encourage any London-based SME to think about joining.

Sarah Mitchell. pictured above, joined Heart of the City from the central London carers charity Carers Network. She previously worked for the national housing charity Crisis as Head of Housing, where she led a UK-wide funding and best practice programme.