Attracting the big fish and creating a community asset

As published on the Guardian “social enterprise” website

Looking back over the ten years since I started Green-Works I’ve had a chance to reflect both on what we’ve achieved and what’s still left to do. In the beginning we saw that office furniture was being discarded by large commercial and government organisations on an enormous scale. Not only was it being discarded but most of it was being dumped in landfill. As well as being a terrible waste of resources, it was also as a lost opportunity to help other smaller organisations who couldn’t afford new furniture.

Adopting a Robin Hood mentality we decided to take advantage of this shortfall. We clean, repair and even re-manufacture unwanted furniture from big businesses so it can be reused. The refreshed pieces are sold to charities at cut prices. The profits are used to fund training for disadvantaged people in theUKand deliver much needed furniture to communities in developing countries.

A decade on and the wasted resource argument is broadly understood and large organisations are now routinely specifying some sort of recycling of their redundant furniture. However the community asset argument is still yet to be won. Useful, good quality, furniture is routinely broken up for scrap.  This means that  communities in theUKand across the developing world being denied the opportunity to improve their working and living conditions with better furniture. Moreover, the tremendous opportunities to train people in the very wide variety of skills that reuse demands are lost.

For us the key to making a real difference has been getting the large corporations on board and retaining them as satisfied customers. Attracting blue chips to social enterprise isn’t always easy but it can be done if you take the time to really understand them.

Firstly it’s critical to approach large organisations at scale. Businesses and government departments want to keep their supply chain simple. They want one organisation to run a whole service. In our case that means that we have to take all the furniture – good, bad or indifferent – within tough  timescales. This means removing hundreds of workstations at a weekend or clearing whole buildings within a couple of weeks. You must be willing and able to take on the whole contract.  We think that means working with partners to increase capacity for large projects.

These partners could come from both the social enterprise and commercial sectors. Most notably for Green-Works, our first large warehouse was set up by First Fruit who have run a very effective depot in eastLondonever since. Looking back, however, I realise that even with partners we were often undercapitalised. We’ve always made up for that short fall with sheer energy and commitment but it’s been a big gap to fill.

By proving we could work to scale we’ve moved the market. That’s partly due to another trait of large organisations; they are extremely adept at adopting new approaches once they’re shown to work. This is especially the case when the activity will show the business to be meeting best practice. So once we’d demonstrated (with a huge contract with HSBC) that we could reuse and recycle industrial amounts of furniture, other companies turned to Green-Works for the service.

With a big name happy client on board, you suddenly become a less risky, more attractive option. With a clear mission statement, CSR and environmental benefits, social enterprises can put themselves in a good position to tick multiple boxes for large corporations. It’s likely you will be awarded points for your values but good communication is vital otherwise you run the risk of simply seeming expensive. In this economy that’s the last thing you want people to associate with your organisation; even big companies with hefty budgets want to know they’re receiving good value for money.

It is hard work dealing with large organisations but all in all I think it was worth the enormous effort that was required to get ourselves up to the scale that corporate clients require.   It has enabled us to really help lots of people and organisations.  With such large contracts we have been able to help more than 15,000 small organisations with low cost furniture and perhaps even more rewarding we have given training and employment opportunities to more than 800 marginalised people.  None of that could have been achieved unless we’d operated at scale.


Corporate Social Responsibility; Solid partners or Fair Weather friends?

Fair-weather Friends? by Colin Crooks

Corporate Social Responsibility is not a ‘nice to have’ which should become a sacrificial lamb in a cost cutting exercise.  Companies have invested heavily in their reputation as caring and considerate employers and responsible members of society for very good reasons.  Their employees are interested, and take positive encouragement from working for enlightened and highly regarded organisations. Cutting CSR programmes now when times are tough demonstrates only one thing – that such businesses are not the self-proclaimed stalwarts of the community and committed long term partners portrayed in their annual reports.  They are in fact fair-weather friends.

CSR has become a familiar term in our business vocabulary. It acknowledges the greater responsibility that comes with the massively increased power wielded by corporate organisations in the global, privatised economy.  As Governments move out of more and more aspects of service delivery, so the requirement for private business to engage fully in the public agenda increases.  As companies ‘off-shore’ their services to lower cost economies, so paradoxically they are increasingly called to account in the home country to make a bigger contribution locally.

Until now, companies have been happy to make that contribution and take the plaudits that go with it.  It has become the norm for corporate organisations to represent themselves as caring employers, responsible environmental citizens and generous supporters of local and/or less fortunate communities. We’ve even started believing it – with health and wellbeing programmes and matched funding for employee fundraising, with office recycling schemes, and high profile donations to community based projects.  Community days with teams of volunteers from banks, law firms and insurance companies getting their hands dirty clearing out canals and painting walls provide team building opportunities, give staff a feel good factor and provide friendly copy for the employee newsletter, the local paper, and the annual report.

The proud employees who work for such organisations will undoubtedly take a very dim view of any moves to cut back on such programmes just when they are needed most.  They are being bombarded by the media messages about corporate greed and mismanagement, and they are seeking reassurance that the organisation for which they work is not like the others, that it is worth putting in the extra hours, handling the stress, taking on the extra workload that is involved in steering the ship through the storm.  Their passion for the business, and for its integrity and its values, is what will get them and their companies through.  Organisational values are meaningless as statements at the front of the employee handbook, or on a Power point slide in the induction programme. They only come alive as they are experienced or witnessed.

Any review of CSR commitments should not focus on cost saving but on their effectiveness!  The global recession is prompting us all to rethink our business models, reassess our risks, reduce our costs, and protect our bottom lines.  CSR activity will inevitably come under scrutiny during this process. It is important to step back from that cost line on the P&L and consider what CSR really represents.

Corporate Social Responsibility must be embedded in a company culture more deeply not less.  It needs to be fully integrated into the business operation.  That is the meaning of integrity – it is as one.   CSR creates opportunities to reduce costs and increase impact.

How so? Well…. a truly embedded CSR policy means actively seeking services from social enterprises and charities.  While there will always be excellent charities that simply need donations there are many which actively raise revenue through trading.

By using functional budgets to buy essential goods and services from social enterprises or trading charities, a company will contribute much more than a limited CSR budget ever could. Every pound spent helps a charitable organisation to do more good work.  More important is the wider impact of that spend.  Social enterprises like Green-Works employ considerable numbers of marginalised people; people who have struggled to get work due to illness, homelessness or imprisonment.  By creating work with a commercial value for such people, social enterprises can restore their self-worth and confidence.  Feeling valued and being confident are the two biggest assets we can give to people anywhere.

The multiplier effect works just as powerfully in the social and environmental economy as it does in the financial economy. Every pound invested in CSR activities has multiple benefits and the impact can be out of all proportion to the cost.  Witness the people who after many years of unemployment have found meaningful employment, witness the people in Africa overjoyed at the donation of redundant furniture from a bank, witness the fun and comradeship engendered through an employee sponsored walk to raise funds for something they all care about.

With a fully embedded sense of corporate and social responsibility, not only would companies purchase from social enterprises and charities but they would encourage employees to volunteer in them; sharing their expertise or their physical labour, and opening their eyes on another world. At its most fundamental level, volunteers gain an insight into the world of the socially disadvantaged, the disabled, or the unemployed which enables them to better appreciate their own positions.  More importantly, they have an opportunity to share their skills and experience in a meaningful way, and actually see the benefits that those skills can bring.

During tough times, it is difficult to give employees the ‘feel good factor’ at work that significantly impacts on creativity, job satisfaction and productivity.  Proactively purchasing goods and services from social enterprises and supporting employees to engage in CSR activities provides this opportunity.

Knowing how much their company has donated to charity will make employees feel good but it will not make them set their alarm an hour earlier, or go the extra mile to win a new account, even if there are nice pictures of the smiling beneficiaries on the intranet or in the newsletter.  CSR is about making the company’s engagement come alive for its employees, as much as it is about benefiting the recipient community, the environment, or charity.

Corporate social responsibility is a set of values –  values that are shared by all employees and all customers.  Values are constant and not fickle.  A CSR policy should be about how to live these values, maintain that integrity, in good times and bad.  CSR should demonstrate that we are true citizens and not fair-weather friends.

Colin Crooks is CEO of Green-works, a Queen’s Award winning environmental social enterprise which diverts waste office furniture from landfill through re-sale, remanufacturing and recycling.

Published in CorpComms Autumn 2009