In 1983, a young 22 year-old black kid decided he wanted to become a community organiser.
He left his safe analyst job at a mid-town Manhattan firm and moved to Chicago, exchanging an abstract, orderly world of financial data for the drugs, deprivation, and institutional neglect of a downtown housing project.
He didn’t know what “organising” entailed. But he was clear on one thing: communities are not a given. They had to be created, fought for, tended to like gardens. Not from the top down, but by “mobilising the grassroots.”
This kid was Barack Obama.
Barack to Big Society
Fast-forward thirty years and 73 specially trained individuals are channelling their own ‘inner-Obama’ having been parachuted into 55 of England’s most run-down communities. They have come from managerial roles in banking, retail, telecoms, utilities and consumer goods. But they haven’t had to sacrifice promising careers. They are on loan – from 21 companies including Sainsbury’s, Lloyds Bank, Fujitsu, Anglian Water, Gregg’s, M&S and BT.
Their job – in the words of the scheme’s architect, Prince Charles – is to “knit together” communities; to consult on local challenges, and over the course of secondments lasting up to two years, to help catalyse and coordinate joined-up solutions by connecting local businesses, charities, community groups, social enterprises and councils.
The Business Connector programme is run by Business in the Community (BitC) and has just marked its first anniversary. It estimates that it has already directed support worth £2.5 million into some of the country’s most deprived areas: from Milton Keynes to Middlesbrough; Swansea to my own hometown, Stoke.
With a £4.8m grant from The Big Lottery Fund to scale up the programme, BitC plans to recruit, train and place over 600 business connectors in more than 200 areas over the next five years – mobilising more than £39m worth of business talent to deliver support worth £52m to local communities.
The scheme is Cameron’s Big Society incarnate, and partly owes its origins to the idea – although no one seems to use that phrase to describe it anymore.
Instead, Business Connectors is refreshingly free from the whiff of wonkery. It has its own logic. “We realised we needed Project Managers on the ground to make things we had discussed, actually happen”, prosaically explains the Prince.
“Peeling the onion”
British businesses, of course, have a long history of supporting communities, which has continued to evolve since the industrial paternalism of the late 19th Century and the beginnings of corporate philanthropy in the early 20th Century.
From the 1980s onwards, corporates have tended to move away from small-scale community activities run by the local branch towards flagship ‘strategic’ programmes that are centrally-run and nationally aligned. This shift, driven by imperatives to build (in some cases, resuscitate) corporate trust, has accelerated by 50% over the past five years.
But Business Connectors marks a new approach, a reversal of sorts, which on the surface, flies in the face of modern community investment orthodoxy.
This approach is best characterised by what Kamel Hothi, Business and Community Director at Lloyds Bank, calls “peeling the onion.” The metaphor refers to the advice she gives new Business Connectors as they land in, and begin to liaise with, the communities to which they’ve been seconded: “Don’t jump in with preconceived solutions until you really understand the challenge. Peel the onion.”
Relocalising” Community Investment
In this way, the programme sees communities as a young Obama did: from the bottom up, not the top down. It is intensely local, needs-led, and issues agnostic. Priorities are informed by the community, not selected by the company, says Lisa Cunningham, Business Connectors’ Programme Director.
This bespoke approach has three important advantages over the conventional ‘breadth, but not depth’ model:
First, corporate resource is directed to the areas that most need it, based on official deprivation data, a balance between rural and urban communities, and where, according to Cunningham, there “isn’t already a surfeit of work being done through existing activities”.
Second, local challenges are objectively scoped and defined in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders. Not dictated from central HQ.
When Business Connector Kelly Metcalf, an HR manager seconded from Fujitsu, landed in Salford, her first step was to speak to Salford City Council; the police; probation service; schools; Connexions careers service; Job Centre Plus; various charities; and Salford Community & Voluntary Services. After several weeks of discussions, “it became very clear that there was a real need for support to help long-term unemployed people in the city develop new skills and increase their awareness of the jobs they could consider doing.”
Third, Business Connectors are themselves well-connected. A big emphasis is placed on creating a self-sustaining network of individuals from a range of companies, with a diverse set of skills and experiences. As such, they are able to share and draw on each others’ strengths, local learnings, and companies’ resources.
Andy White, a local branch manager for Lloyds Bank, in Luton, brought together the Job Centre, local council and 40 businesses to stage a jobs fair that has since led to 400 people, previously unemployed, finding paid work. Meanwhile, Russell Beal, a rural Business Connector from Anglian Water, has united an impressive army of his company’s suppliers to build an enterprise hub in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire.
A “community arms race”
All this attention to detail, however, costs money. Sainsbury’s are committing £1m and four employees per year over the next three years and Lloyds Bank, who plan to place 60 people over the same period, are investing around £9m.
So what is driving businesses to make such a considerable investment in Business Connectors when they are already running flagship community activities of their own?
For some businesses, particularly those in sectors suffering from severe trust-deficit disorder, Business Connectors forms part of a journey of re-establishing what it means to be a community-based organisation. Candidly acknowledging how banks have gone from pillar of the community to being pilloried by the community, Hothi suggests Lloyds Bank fall squarely into this category.
For others, such as Sainsbury’s, where localism is already firmly embedded, it is an experiment in reaching ever deeper into community life and, by proxy, the lives of its customers. Business Connectors “gives us the opportunity to test just how far we can take the local emphasis”, says Alex Cole. Retailers are engaged in a “community arms race”, she adds.
An arms race? If so, it is one in which knowledge really is power.
Hothi says Lloyds Bank is still discovering new ways to leverage the programme, but Connectors are already in high demand across a number of internal departments – whether to help focus-group new products and services with marketing or providing contexts and contacts for government procurement and public affairs work.
Yet where Business Connectors really has form is in giving corporate HQ the ability to empirically roadtest, review and refine community strategies of which they ordinarily have only an anecdotal or dryly statistical grasp. Almost all companies I spoke to had identified things they would now look to differently.
Underpinning all of this, however, is an assumption that may seem obvious but, in practical terms, shouldn’t any longer be taken as “a given”. This assumption is that even in an age of online shopping and internet banking, where two-thirds of us live in hermetic ignorance of our neighbours next door, UK business believes there is still such a thing as ‘community’.
In the words of Obama, it has to be created; it has to be carefully tended to. But as far as some of our leading companies are concerned, it is certainly worth fighting for.
Originally published on the Guardian