Businesses can often focus solely on individual customers – as buyers or recipients of services – and this can have the unintended result of neglecting the local community. A community-centric approach can act as an effective mechanism for more inclusive growth, which leads to a win-win scenario for community members and the private sector. Whether you’re a start-up or an established business, there are plenty of ways you can become involved with your local community and build links that benefit both parties.
Lessons from abroad
Helping local economies is a topic that is close to my heart. Previously the Senior Rural Development Expert at the World Bank, I spent a decade travelling to countries like India, helping local communities to create their own businesses and expand the local economy, and the lessons I learnt can be applied to the UK, and indeed to any country.
The community-owned financial institutions formed in India offer a good example of a community-focused business approach. The institutions are co-designed with members and allow the previously unbanked Indian population to access affordable credit. Members act on the behalf of customers to negotiate and co-create relevant products with the private sector.
The principles of these community-led initiatives are relevant to any business wanting to engage with their locality. In my experience, the first part of setting up any scheme with the local community is to go out and listen to people. Find out what motivates them and discuss any local issues. You can do this by identifying and talking to local community leaders, journalists and councillors. But don’t just limit yourself to communicating with leaders: there’s no substitute for going out and talking to the people who live and work locally.
Most people find it difficult to approach individuals in the street or cold-call local leaders. One approach is to set up an open day or sponsor an existing local event. That way you have a good opener for introductions and it’s easier to initiate a conversation and introduce the subject of local business integration.
Knowledge is key
One of the main criteria for successfully opening up the business and helping the local community in places like India is education, and this applies to businesses anywhere in the world. To be able to help a community you need to ensure it understands what you do, how you do it, and why. You need to conduct outreach work and hold open days to show local people that what your business does is genuinely useful.
Once you have identified what the community needs, it’s time to act upon it: contribute towards repairs to facilities, sponsor the local football team, and set up apprenticeship schemes that employ local young people.
You should also encourage your employees – and you will need to take the lead – to help local groups and you could use the expertise of your staff and business for this. For example, a building firm could help with repairs to community amenities. Also, use the local shops and restaurants; you will probably find that many are prepared to offer a discount for your staff so everyone benefits.
Helping the local community should be a central part of your corporate social responsibility, and by doing so, you will help to build the next generation of CSR-conscious employees and create a better-educated and healthier locality.
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