Charity starts at home

Best-selling business author, experienced charity trustee and successful social entrepreneur Robert Ashton explains why he believes that, in the future, all businesses will be social businesses.

It's not because they feel they should, but because soon they know they must!

Let’s be honest. No business is going to do social business unless the financial benefits are clear. Politicians bemoan the decline of High Street stores, yet the writing is on the wall. Business is being done differently these days. We’ll never see a return to those captive, forgiving retail markets enjoyed by the previous generation.

Yet despite cheap food and an almost unimaginable choice of consumer goods, travel and leisure opportunities, people are far from happy. Stuff alone doesn’t create happiness; it’s the impact it has on your life that matters.

Learn how to make people happy and you have their loyalty, commitment and even forgiveness when things go wrong. In short, you will be a social business.

Put roses round their door

The social housing sector is learning these lessons faster than most. These large organisations, many spun out of local government, house some of the most challenging people in Britain. Demand for housing is high, yet social rents must remain low.

Keeping tenants happy and enriching their communities reduces problems and increases the likelihood that rents will be promptly and willingly paid. This cuts operating costs, improves staff retention and boosts the bottom line.

I’ve helped housing associations support emerging community enterprises, kick-start stalled urban regeneration projects and create innovative ways to reduce youth unemployment. In each case, the return on investment has been clear and the competitive advantage calculable.

Social media drives social business

Even in the most esoteric B2B niche, customers and users talk. They Tweet, use online forums and are quick to publicly praise or berate you. Social media can make or break reputation. Managed well, this can underpin traditional marketing activity. Managed badly, it can make your marketing appear shallow, misleading and even dishonest.

People have to like your business now, on their terms, judged against their criteria. It’s no longer what you say that counts, it’s what you do.

Look on your own doorstep

Good social business is micro not macro. It’s not about national campaigns or community programmes. It’s about empowering your people to do small things, about a multitude of little projects that, together, show your business cares.

Of course you need an overarching strategy. You also need reporting systems that enable you to manage time spent, materials given and money spent. You don’t need to change the world, just the neighbourhood in which you do business.

Start small; show people how, by supporting your business, you will support them. Measure the result and publicly celebrate success. It’s much more than just charity, but it must always start at home!

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK