· 2 min read · Features

CSR that works for everyone

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Traditional CSR initiatives can end up insipid and ineffective, but partnering with social enterprises may hold the key to a renaissance.

“There’s an old adage in CSR that schools near Canary Wharf are getting smaller because bankers are doing so much wall painting.” So says Richard Tyrie, founder and CEO of Good People, an organisation that supports firms to deliver effective CSR projects, and trustee of social enterprise support organisation UnLtd.

The problem, as he describes it, is that CSR has historically been a token endeavour for many. “CSR has typically been bolted on. A business will back a charity and raise money for them and that’s it,” he says.

The good news is that more organisations are now realising how beneficial partnering with social enterprises can be. This, reports Tyrie, is rapidly becoming ‘the new CSR’.

One of the many projects UnLtd supports is Wayra, Telefónica’s startup accelerator. Wayra is split into two ventures, one that supports all kinds of tech startups, and one, in conjunction with government and UnLtd, which supports tech startups demonstrating ‘social impact’.

The idea is Telefónica provides financial backing and HR, marketing, sales, product design, user experience and leadership expertise to support fledgling businesses seeking to tackle issues vital to Telefónica’s own success.

Gary Stewart, director at Wayra UK, cites the example of supporting startups that address demand for phone access to educational and health content.

“If we see that people are increasingly looking for ways to access their medical records or get health advice through their mobiles, and we provide mobile phones, then that’s already a strategic priority for Telefónica,” he says. “But instead of building these solutions ourselves, we can work with startups that already have approaches.”

Stewart adds: “There’s not that much difference between social enterprise and commercial interests. At the end of the day entrepreneurs solve big problems. And a lot of the biggest problems are social problems.”

Stewart adds that such activity has strong reputation benefits for Telefónica, and big business in general. “Whereas before people saw corporates as the Goliath that had to be killed so David could have a chance, now they see us as another partner that can help build a socially impactful ecosystem.”

Many businesses are turning to social enterprise partnerships to detoxify their brand, reports Tyrie. “What with phone hacking, banks fixing rates, energy companies fixing prices and MPs’ expenses, the biggest challenge people now face is rebuilding trust in institutions,” he says, explaining that social enterprise partnerships achieve this more effectively than charity partnerships because projects tend to be much longer term and strategic, and so have greater impact.

He adds that another benefit for the large corporate is development opportunities for staff.

Stewart explains that Wayra’s activities are so integral to the business success of Telefónica that the venture has never been classified as CSR.

“We’re not compartmentalising this,” he says. “This is something we’re doing because we think we can do well and do good at the same time. We don’t have to choose. A lot of the startups we work with don’t want to be considered as CSR projects. People don’t want to feel like charity cases and we don’t want that either.”

Tyrie agrees that we’re hopefully witnessing the beginning of a different business world, where supporting wider society (or what has typically been categorised as CSR) is now integral.

“If we rethink the role business plays in society, we could see a real renaissance,” says Tyrie. “If you take a historical view, so looking at firms such as Bournville, it’s generally been a force for good. That’s been distorted in the last few decades. But hopefully we’re now back on track.”