From strategic to reactive? What has COVID-19 meant for businesses’ engagement with the community?

“Stick to your knitting!” The advice to stick to what I do best has been offered to me on several occasions in the past, often from much wiser people than I, who know when to adhere to ‘tried and tested’ and when to try something new. 

In many ways, ‘new’ has been thrust into our lives by COVID-19, for both good and bad. A ‘new’ virus must now be treated in ‘new’ ways. Businesses have had to find ‘new’ ways of working; schools are experimenting with ‘new’ ways of learning; families are discovering ‘new’ ways of juggling. Yet, COVID-19 has also highlighted how many fundamentals have remained the same: the importance of healthcare; how we thrive on human interaction; the importance of education.  It has also highlighted a fundamental that can be easily overlooked, but one that underpins much of the ethos here at Business in the Community: healthy back streets result in healthy high streets. In other words, businesses need healthy communities in order to survive and communities rely on healthy businesses in order to continue to thrive.

Despite their interdependence, the relationship between businesses and the communities they serve has undergone considerable change over the years. Thirty years ago, many businesses would have argued their relationship with the local community was predicated on charitable contributions and local sponsorships. A tried and tested approach, particularly for smaller, family-owned companies, such a local ‘philanthropic’ stance was often welcomed by communities and was driven internally by local employees who had an emotional ‘stake’ in the activity.

As time has moved on, businesses’ relationship with the local community is now multi-faceted. Companies are much more likely to refer to their ‘Responsible Business’, ‘Corporate Responsibility’ or ‘Sustainability’ strategies, which encompass a range of activities, from minimising carbon emissions to promoting employee wellbeing to strategic community partnerships.  Businesses are keen to demonstrate innovation in their approach, with value being placed on measurable outcomes. ‘Social return on investment’ is regularly referred to, with some companies treating much of their community engagement as a strategic decision.

And so they should.

I, for one, have passionately advocated for companies to adopt a strategic approach to engaging with communities. I believe it’s key to ensuring companies make the biggest possible impact in a community in a way that makes sense for both the business and the community in question. I’ve joined many others in arguing that by ensuring an activity makes strategic sense, we are guaranteeing its longevity and, therefore, sustainability longer-term. So, for example, it can be argued that banks should engage with communities on financial literacy. Tech firms should work with communities to ensure young people (and females in particular) have the skills to help them thrive in the sector. Retailers should be working with local suppliers. A win:win for everyone. It’s something we are thankfully seeing happen across a multitude of sectors now. Strategic community engagement has become the new ‘knitting’ for business.

Or so I thought.  When the impact of COVID-19 began to really be borne by local communities, whether that be in terms of food shortages or vulnerable people isolating and needing resources, strategic community engagement went out the window for many organisations. Hundreds of businesses, despite many of them feeling their own hardships, drew on their institutional memory and reverted to the community engagement of ‘old’. Businesses knew communities needed their support. They could see their own employees feeling the strain. They knew they had the know-how and resource to be able to address problems effectively and quickly. They could see the ‘back streets’ weren’t as ‘healthy’ as they could be and they needed support.

Rather than driving their own community engagement strategy, businesses asked communities what they needed. They listened and they provided whatever support they could. PricewaterhouseCoopers did a big fundraising drive online. Translink bus drivers did fundraisers in support of the NHS. Spar became a hub for the ‘Big Community Sew’, helping collect and distribute masks across the province. The list goes on.

The shift from a highly strategic approach to one that’s much more flexible and driven by local need happened in a matter of weeks. Of course, it should be noted that many organisations have charitable causes alongside their strategic community partnerships, but there’s no doubt we have seen a shift towards a responsive, rather than strategic approach to community engagement in recent months. It’s made me think – is a responsive, community-led approach to business:community engagement actually what businesses know and do best?  In responding so quickly and effectively to COVID-19, have businesses decided to ‘stick to their knitting’? Should we step back from the drive for strategic, measurable approaches to responsible business and encourage organisations to a more reactive, response approach to needs in the best way they deem fit?

Although it may seem like I’m on the fence, I think the future will see companies adopt a hybrid approach. I believe we’ll see companies set aside resource to enable them to take a flexible, responsive approach to community engagement. But I also think COVID-19 has put a spotlight on many of the challenges facing our society, ranging from mental health to the additional challenges faced by disadvantaged communities. The starkness of inequality in its many shapes and forms has sharpened in recent months and I’m really encouraged to see businesses seek guidance on how they can best use their resources strategically over the incoming months and years to really effect positive, long-term change in local communities.

Businesses know that sticking to your knitting too much can get you stuck. They’re getting ready to support communities in a raft of ways in the near future and I’m very proud that we in Business in the Community are in a place to help them do that.

If your business can offer support to local communities, please contact the BITC Communities Team.