Most small firms provide valuable services and employment to their local communities – but many go beyond this, actively seeking out ways to help out good causes in their area. And, as Peter Crush explains, there are sound business reasons for getting involved, as well as charitable ones.
Whichever way you cut it, the UK’s small businesses are the backbone of the economy. According to FSB statistics from 2018, they comprise 99 per cent of private sector businesses, employ 60 per cent of the private sector workforce, and create £2 trillion of turnover. In economic terms, they’re the success story that keeps giving.
But what if ‘value’ could be calculated by other measures, such as their contribution to the fabric of society, the sense of identity or stability they bring to regions, or the local ambition they engender? If this could be worked out, wouldn’t small firms be seen as even more valuable?
That’s why FSB has been specifically researching the social benefit of SMEs in its recent social value survey, which has led to the new Small Business, Big Heart: Bringing communities together report (published in February 2019).
“We wanted to find out just how engaged SMEs are with their communities and, after polling 1,876 members last October, we found that 80 per cent volunteered and/or contributed to a local community organisation or charitable cause, 42 per cent have links with their local schools, colleges and youth organisations, and 27 per cent actually hold a position in their local community alongside running their business, such as local mountain rescue, scout group leader, coastguard or local fire brigade,” says Sarah Green, FSB Community Policy Unit Chair.
According to her, entrepreneurs and small businesses naturally tend to ‘give back’, often because they want to help people out of situations they were once in, or simply because they want to do good.
She gives the example of one member in Scotland, the butcher Hunters of Kinross, which bought a publicly-accessible defibrillator and trained locals how to use it after a loyal customer died of a cardiac arrest. Thanks to this, the Scottish Craft Butchers and the Scotch Butchers Club are now partnering with Save a Life Scotland to encourage members to take part and help save lives in their local community.
FSB’s report calls on Government to put in place some specific measures to encourage and support the huge contributions that smaller firms make to their communities. These include exploring the potential for ‘Community Zones’, similar to the Enterprise Zones model, and having a new small business champion on the Responsible Business Leadership Group.
In its recent Civil Society Strategy, the Government says the ‘best businesses play a highly positive role, reach out to respond to social problems and put social and environmental responsibility at the heart of what they do’.
More directly, the Government stated in its response to the Integrated Communities Strategy that it ‘believes opportunities for meeting and mixing socially with people from different backgrounds is important, which helps break down barriers between communities and builds greater trust and understanding’.
With more businesses getting involved in projects such as The Great Get Together, one of the biggest community events in the UK, which also provides tools and resources for small firms looking to do more in their local communities – the spirit of smaller businesses is clear to see. The quality of entrants to the area community category of the FSB Celebrating Small Business Awards is also testament to the work small firms do in this space.
But who’s doing this really brilliantly? We speak to four FSB member businesses that aim to bring more to their region than just employment.
Samantha Costa, co-founder of Finchley-based family business Costa Decoration, grew up in the shadow of Grenfell Tower, the fire that tragically killed 72 people in 2017. So when the BBC’s DIY SOS threw out a request for helpers to rebuild Dale Youth boxing club – a gym also destroyed by the fire – and a community centre, she couldn’t say no. “In total we probably spent about five or six days on this build, but it’s always important we give back,” she says.
In fact, this isn’t the only community project Costa has been involved with. “We do as many initiatives as we can,” she says. “We’ve been involved in a local council housing project, aimed at preventing isolation and creating better cohesion, by painting the areas they meet in; we’ve also volunteered to paint old people’s houses for free.”
Her message to other small firms couldn’t be clearer: “There’s much need out there, and while firms could easily be discouraged by the time or cost commitment, everyone can do something to be a part of the social fabric of their community. While there is brand benefit, that’s not our sole reason. It’s nice to see how doing something small can have such a big impact on people.”
It’s a vicious circle – more than half of prison-leavers reoffend within 12 months because they can’t get a job, but only around 26 per cent of prisoners enter employment after release because of employer wariness, according to Government figures.
This is not a statistic that can be levelled at Leicester and Northampton-based commercial waste business Bakers Waste. The £14.5 million turnover firm, started by Paul Baker in 2002, now employs more than 100 people – and ex-offenders are welcome. “Paul knows more opportunity is often afforded by accident of birth,” says Ali Beddow, the firm’s business development and marketing consultant.
“He’s already set up a recruitment and training company – Driving Talent – aimed at finding people jobs in the haulage and transportation sector, but it was through partnering with the Wire Project, a prison support charity promoting reintroduction into workplaces, that things have really taken off.”
Thanks to a partnership with HM Prison Stocken, Bakers Waste promises that any inmate who does a waste management qualification in its jail can have a trial with the business after they’ve been released from their transfer prison. “We don’t get involved with what people’s offences were, but we do say that if people commit to changing their lives around, we’ll help,” says Ms Beddow. “Ultimately, we want to help people be able to move on with their lives.”
A wider benefit also comes from working with HM Prison Stocken. “Prisoners repair cycles, and given we collect waste from the prison anyway, we offered to distribute repaired bikes to charity shops for them to sell.”
Look at the Bakers website, though, and you won’t see any of this illuminated in lights. “This is stuff we don’t massively shout about,” adds Ms Beddow. “We did promote the bikes element – but only to show what difference other firms could make locally without much effort. We help people park the past, and ultimately we are a business that is always looking for staff,” she says.
“Being part of the community is massive for us – it’s just what we do. Others could easily copy it.”
As a successful recruitment agency serving West Yorkshire and Humberside, it could be said Stafflex is embedded in the local community. At any one time, it has 200 jobs that need placing per week, mainly in the temporary, industrial sector.
However, its marketing executive Nemi Alexis isn’t wrong when he says few companies do as much as Stafflex does to ‘get under the skin’ of the community.
“We support a not-for-profit events company set up by our founder, called Huddersfield Live,” he says. “This organises community events for the local area, including the Huddersfield Winter Festival. We also support the Ravensknowle Children’s Gala – where children can have a free tea and a day’s entertainment at Ravensknowle Park; and and we are on a committee board that organises an annual community Christmas lunch. Last year it raised £32,000.”
Perhaps Stafflex’s biggest commitment is its sponsorship of the Leslie Sports Foundation, set up by former Huddersfield Town chairman Graham Leslie, which gives local people access to coached sport (it currently supports 32 football league clubs and is a hub for local sport).
“It costs us money, but that’s not the point,” says Mr Alexis. “It’s part of our ethos. Being a good, responsible business is about solidifying your position locally. There are lots of recruitment agencies, but we feel our difference is being central to the community – by our observable actions as well as our physical presence.”
Staff buy into the concept of giving something back, too. “We give people an afternoon off each quarter to volunteer in their community,” he says. “It’s ingrained into our working culture. It’s for a greater social good but it also makes great business sense.”
When Cheryl-Lya Broadfoot decided to become a career coach and mentor, launching Soul’s Compass in 2013, she quickly found the isolation involved in creating a new business overwhelming.
“I was terribly lonely. At one point I think I went nine days without speaking to a single human!” she admits. Not long afterwards, a news item revealed that Enfield, where she lived, was the UK’s 6th unhappiest place in which to live, and she had her eureka moment: to bring other fledgling firms together, form a support network and see if it could become a focal point for the community.
The result is Enfield Wellbeing, a one-day annual festival bringing the public and local businesses together to showcase all things wellbeing related. The first event was in 2016, and it now attracts more than 200 local people, who see over 50 small local firms, experience demonstrations and listen to presentations. “I wanted to do more for the local community, but also create ways businesses could work with each other,” Ms Broadfoot says.
As the event has grown, she has strived to ensure exhibiting firms reflect the demographic make-up of the borough, so now 30 per cent of businesses are black, Asian, and minority ethnic-owned. “Residents want somewhere to find out about
local businesses, and they can mingle with like-minded people, make new friends and connections,” she adds.
The event has been so successful that plans exist to expand the format to Hackney and Waltham Forest councils, as well as Manchester. “As a local business owner, the work I’ve done creating this definitely gives me local gravitas, but more than that it gives me trust and standing within my local community.”