· Features

Responsible business: corporate volunteers learn more on the job than in class

Big Society: I heard prime minister David Cameron talk about the concept on the Today programme – and boy, did he struggle to explain it.

Now, the idea of generating a climate to help people and business to take an active role in the community feels like a smart move.

The Fire Station is a pioneering partnership, between the private, public and third sectors, which mines this potentially rich vein by helping disadvantaged individuals develop skills and find work.

Set up by PwC, The Fire Station involves Dragons' Den success story chef Simon Boyle, the School for Social Enterprise (SSE), Blossoms Healthcare, Social Enterprise UK and De Vere Venues.

It aims to fulfil many purposes, from providing workshops to apprentices in hospitality and catering via Boyle's Beyond Food Foundation (BFF), to business consultancy by PwC volunteers.

Although The Fire Station opened its doors in September, Global Entrepreneurship Week, 14-20 November, provided the platform to showcase the different partners' ambitions.

Through a scheme called Fresh Life, for example, Boyle and BFF work with major charities to engage 500 disadvantaged people in food workshops. It is hoped a third will go on to work experience. To set up seven full-time apprenticeships is Fresh Life's modest but manageable yearly target.

The SSE and Social Enterprise UK aim to carve out opportunities where social enterprises can thrive.

The PwC in the Community programme in the UK has been running for over two decades. It has committed the firm to establishing The Fire Station as a centre of excellence that will power a new breed of social entrepreneurs.

"We are never short of volunteers for social enterprise and mentoring. Principles of business remain the same; the challenges and scale are different. It is an eye-opener for our people," says Gaenor Bagley, PwC head of people.

"You learn more on the job than you do in a classroom: volunteering your ability to build teams, relationships and get results - all the things we value in our people."

John Laughlin, HR senior manager at PwC, is mentoring an SSE graduate. "I hope I can help my mentee develop his organisation for his benefit and for those he is working to help."

On the 'client' side, Alistair Wilson, SSE CEO, is enthusiastic: "The Fire Station will be an incubator for big and interesting social enterprise ideas."

Michael Saxton is founder of Greenpoint PR