· 2 min read · Features

After the riots, what next for community engagement?


The decade: the 1980’s. The scene: urban riots in the inner city, from Brixton to Toxteth. The reaction from business leaders: a realisation that the disenchantment and violence being seen in communities was not good for business.

They concluded that "healthy high streets need healthy back streets" and modern corporate community engagement - now a central pillar of the corporate (social) responsibility agenda - was born.

So how should businesses and their employees react to the appalling scenes we saw on our streets last week?

For years big business, often through the efforts of its employees, has made a positive impact in communities through initiatives like volunteering, mentoring, work placements and tailored community programmes. Even if in some cases companies were more concerned about their own reputations than the state of the communities they were operating in, the result - assuming initiatives were well managed and based on a genuine community need - was valuable support for community organisations such as charities, social enterprises, schools and even local Government projects.

Was it all in vain? Have the actions of the anarchists, rioters and looters rendered the efforts of business worthless? Employees, who are stretched enough at work as it is, could be forgiven for deciding to turn their backs on volunteering if this is how people in our most needy communities behave. And employers know that community engagement costs money, in staff time if nothing else - why spend valuable budget, directly or indirectly, on members of the community who become criminals at the drop of a hat?

These are, of course, all the reasons why business should continue to engage in communities - but it's not just because the need in communities is more acute than ever; it's because the opportunity for business and its people is greater than ever. If this sounds a tad Machiavellian, consider this: the leadership skills needed in business today are increasingly the same leadership skills needed in communities. The challenges facing business leaders - doing more with less, influencing, innovating, leading people towards a clear vision - are the exact challenges facing heads of community organisations, large and small, up and down the country. This was the case before the riots, which means that it is even more the case now.

The implication is that business can develop leadership skills amongst its people by focusing on the needs in its communities and working with community leaders who are tackling those needs. What better way of learning 'authentic leadership' than working with the head of a grass roots charity that tackles community deprivation? How do you develop skills in influencing across hierarchies if not in a real-life, community environment? How better to have an experience of 'doing the right thing' - another key leadership behaviour in business - than in a setting where doing the right thing could be the difference between life and death?

These might sound like selfish motivations for community engagement, but the truth is that most employers demand a business case way beyond the tired old "giving back to the community" argument. Linking leadership development with community engagement provides a strong rationale. And anyway, implicit in all of this is mutual benefit and value - the business leader benefits and the community leader benefits; if there is nothing in it for the latter then any engagement will be unsustainable - and sustainability is of course key to healthy businesses and healthy communities.

Jan Levy is MD of Three Hands.