Building Bridges with Corporate Citizenship

OPINION

The potential for small-to-medium sized enterprises to become more involved in CSR activities is barely beginning to be tapped, argues structural engineer and social justice advocate Tim McMinn. In this opinion piece, McMinn explores the ways in which SMEs can become more actively involved in this space.

Small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs) form the backbone of Australia’s economy. According to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 96% of businesses employ fewer than 20 people, and 99% employ fewer than 200. Between them these SMEs employ around 70% of the Australian workforce.

Yet despite the prevalence of SMEs, when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the focus usually shifts to the big end of town. For example, the majority of companies that made the Australian Council for Corporate Social Responsibility’s list of top 20 CSR performers for 2010-11 were large organisations. Furthermore most CSR guidelines, tools and practices – corporate volunteering and grant making programs, for instance – are geared towards big businesses.

This is a pity, because SMEs have an enormous range of skills and capabilities they can leverage for the public benefit. The potential for SMEs to become more involved in CSR activities is barely beginning to be tapped.

To unlock this promise, we first need to understand how SMEs are currently engaging in CSR initiatives. In a recent research project, Christina Barton of the University of Technology in Sydney considered the example of small tourism firms in the Blue Mountains. She found that owner-managed SMEs tend to engage in CSR in a ‘reactive’ fashion, donating to charities when approached, for example, or making flexible arrangements for staff to deal with family demands. Owners see the firm’s CSR initiatives as an extension of their personal values.

Staff-managed businesses, on the other hand, are more ‘proactive’, seeking out opportunities to fundraise and make donations to charities. But they engage in CSR activities for a different set of reasons to owner-managed businesses, justifying them more in terms of costs weighed against benefits such as an enhanced business reputation.

Some of the barriers which inhibit SMEs from engaging in CSR initiatives on a widespread basis include a perceived lack of time and resources; the predominance of tools and guidelines geared toward big business; limited connections with potential partner organisations in the Not for Profit sector; and a lack of awareness of the benefits to staff attraction, retention and motivation, and positive brand associations. Many of these barriers can be overcome by making information which is tailored to the needs of SMEs more widely available, especially through case studies that illustrate a variety of approaches and strategies for initiating and maintaining CSR activity. I will relate one such example from personal experience here.

I work as a structural engineer at BG&E, a specialist structural and civil engineering consultancy. While BG&E employs just over 200 personnel, technically qualifying as a large enterprise, it shares many similarities with medium-sized engineering consultancies having grown rapidly in the past decade. BG&E’s owners remain heavily involved in the day-to-day operation of the business. For some time they have desired the company to engage more regularly in activities that “give back” to the community, especially through pro-bono work. In the past BG&E carried out CSR activities in the ‘reactive’ fashion described by Ms Barton, taking on pro-bono projects on an ad hoc basis, and making occasional donations.

Last year BG&E introduced a new CSR strategy. It seeks to direct the specialist technical skills and knowledge within the firm to create change and opportunity in communities experiencing issues such as poverty and disadvantage, and to benefit organisations promoting culture and the arts. The policy has five focus areas: pro-bono engineering; support for individual staff initiatives; strengthening Indigenous Australian’s pathways to employment; workplace giving; and building partnerships with Not for Profits.

Since the program’s introduction BG&E has supported organisations including Engineers Without Borders, World Vision, and Kiva, and large numbers of staff and clients have been involved in raising funds and volunteering time to causes including the WA Institute for Medical Research and the Indigenous Australian Engineering Summer School. There is a great deal of staff interest and pride in the company’s CSR activities.

To introduce and implement the new CSR strategy BG&E’s senior management created a facilitating environment and sketched out the values of the policy, and then harnessed the energy of staff champions to drive the process. The champions were empowered to develop the policy details and to encourage staff engagement across the company. Employee initiative and participation is intended to be the main source of CSR activities and pro-bono engineering opportunities.

As part of the CSR program, in March I will travel to Tanzania with two other young engineers, Garrett Bray and Benny Man, draftsman Antony Rieck and Director Peter de Bruin. Over five weeks, we will be working to reconstruct damaged bridges with the villages of Mambo and Tema, nestled high in the Usambara Mountains. The majority of livelihoods depend on smallholder agriculture, and the communities are linked by dirt roads to regional towns some three hours away. In 2011, several bridges along these roads were badly damaged by flooding, rendering them impassable to vehicle traffic, with a significant impact on local livelihoods. Repairing the bridges will re-establish the communities’ contact with markets for their produce.

The project illustrates the way in which pro-bono projects emerge from BG&E’s CSR framework via the initiative of staff. Antony had visited an eco lodge in the area called ‘Mambo View Point’ in 2011, and made the link between the local communities and BG&E. Following the communities’ request, in early 2012 the engineering team designed replacement structures for the damaged bridges.

The designs make use of reinforced concrete to resist future flood events, and are intended to be as simple as possible, as much of the work will be done by hand. In late 2012 BG&E offered to help fund the construction of the most critical bridges, and arranged for the engineering team to provide voluntary construction support and to build the capacity of the local trades in reinforced concrete construction techniques. BG&E is aiming to leave a lasting legacy of knowledge and capabilities in addition to the physical structures.

BG&E’s experiences provide an example of the kind of CSR activities that SMEs can become engaged in once they harness their specialist skills and capabilities in a directed CSR program. By making use of champions and staff initiative, time-poor leadership can develop a proactive approach to CSR which embodies their values and those of the business, engages staff, and yields positive brand associations with clients and the broader community.

To find out more about BG&E’s experience with introducing and implementing a new CSR strategy, you can get in touch by emailing csr@bgeeng.com. You can also keep up to date with the progress of the Tema Project on facebook or twitter (@bgeeng).

About the Author: Tim McMinn is a structural engineer and social justice advocate based in Perth. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_mcminn


The main bridge Tim will be working on in Tanzania. Picture: Herman Erdtsieck

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