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InfoQ Homepage Articles Meaning it: What’s the Real Purpose of Corporate Social Responsibility?

Meaning it: What’s the Real Purpose of Corporate Social Responsibility?



A restaurant to give homeless people apprenticeships? A centre to foster social enterprise? A ‘round the nation’ bike ride? Helen Walton, chair of the Spark Award judging panel, talks to PwC about the range of their charitable activities in the UK, and why they’re about business, not image.


A restaurant staffed by the homeless; support for 250 social entrepreneurs; a programme to offer 150 apprenticeships a year; a panto for disadvantaged kids; raising over a hundred fifty thousand pounds with a national bike ride…

What do these sound like? The charitable activities of a group of celebrities? New government initiatives?

They are, in fact, just a few of the corporate social responsibility projects run in the UK by PwC, one of the four biggest professional services firms in the world, employing over 200,000 people globally. 'Doing the right thing' is an important part of the culture at PwC and this comes through in their work. The firm’s overall programme of CSR – especially the event organised by two junior employees to bring the company together on two wheels– was this year’s runner up for a Spark Award, sponsored by Gaia Leadership.

Ride the Nation: Runner-Up to the Spark Award

When the PwC Spark Award application arrived, the judges were slightly underwhelmed. A bike ride for charity? Our imagination conjured up the endless sponsorship appeals for triathlons and marathons that drop into in-boxes every day. All very worthy, and no doubt good for the individual’s fitness, but not exactly workplace innovation or engagement.

But our initial impression was quickly overturned. After our first conversation with the young couple who had organised it, we realised that this was a carefully thought-out event that showcased a deeply felt philosophy of engagement and purpose.

“We’re a big company,” Leighton Smith said. “You don’t have to think about the global size, just keeping up with nearly 20,000 employees in the UK is impossible. We have 31 offices and people are also separated according to their lines of service – tax, accounting, consulting etc. – and then there’s the organisational hierarchy on top. It can be very easy to stay in silos – but we know that separation is not good for us. It’s not good for the business – for cross-selling, for innovation, for sharing knowledge. It’s not good for people – for your own relationships and opportunities. And it’s not good for communities – for feeling connected to the wider world.”

Leighton’s idea had been sparked by a previous company bike ride in which he had ridden next to a senior, business unit leader from a different region. “I would never have chatted so casually to him in the normal course of work. Perhaps never have even seen him,” admitted Leighton. “It struck me that these kinds of connections were incredibly important. Between different regions, different types of work, different seniority levels. I had this mad idea that we should do a cycle ride to physically connect every single office in the UK.”

Bringing people together

Given the reach of PwC, that was a bigger ride than many might think, stretching from Aberdeen in the north to the Channel Isles in the south and from Norwich in the east to Dungannon in Northern Ireland in the west. In total the route was 2,300 miles.

Another keen cyclist might have had this idea. Perhaps he or she might even have asked an employer for some sponsorship. It’s at this point that the Ride the Nation idea changed from the worthy charity concept the Spark judges were expecting to an innovative activity for a happier workplace. Because Leighton and his partner, Chantal Mutel, a Senior Partner PA at PwC, envisaged hundreds of riders cycling from office to office, support teams and fundraising events in every region and a really ambitious goal for charity.

“We wanted something that would connect us all,” Chantal said, “figuratively and literally! Every office would connect with every other office. People would work together on different aspects of the event – from publicity to support teams. And, if it doesn’t sound too pretentious, by sharing the same purpose – raising money for causes we really cared about – we hoped it would connect us at a deeper emotional level as well.”

Together, the pair wrote and submitted a business proposal for a national event that would require significant resources, especially while fitting the event in with the company’s existing heavy commitment to charitable and volunteering activity.

Winning support for the idea was just the beginning of the journey. Together, they would end up co-ordinating one of the largest single events PwC had ever held. Over the month-long event, a small core of riders completed the entire national distance, joined by 700 participants at various stages along the way and cheered on by an army of supporters who raised money with bake sales, bacon sarnie drives and mini competitions in every town.

The pair sought and won significant sponsorship from suppliers and even achieved significant press coverage and celebrity support. As we sat in the London office, they shared happy anecdotes – the sight of a senior partner proudly circling the car park on a vintage Raleigh chopper or another trying to speed a Brompton folding bike up a hill; the pantomime characters who came to join the ride; Rugby player Shane Williams riding alongside the team through the Welsh valleys and Chris Hoy signing Ride the Nation jersey for auction, which several partners clubbed together to buy for the Edinburgh office where it is proudly displayed.

Altogether, the company raised an impressive £150k for charity – 50% of which went to PwC’s 6 national charities, and 50% to local charities selected by each office. As individuals they would also find themselves running committees which included some very senior people, questioning processes and guidelines where they felt it necessary and taking on tasks and challenges of which they had no previous experience.

“What’s so amazing,” Chantal comments, “is that we had the company’s complete trust. Once the Executive Board had approved the plan, we had huge freedom to just get on with it. We could prove what we were able to do – and since we’ve done this, there are lots of other people who feel inspired to come forward with their own ideas.”

The event clearly worked on several levels – just as Leighton and Chantal intended. They spoke of the connections they had witnessed, the new friendships and offers of help between different offices – including at least two introductions to new business.

The effect on their own development was clear – both have been offered new roles as a result of the leadership they’d demonstrated. The event had won PwC’s internal Chairman’s Award, but more importantly, had worked so well to bring the company together that a similar event is already being planned for 2017 in the UK, while other countries were also planning their own.

“We had offers from various events companies to run Ride the Nation for us,” said Chantal. “But what is so special about the event is that this was run by the company for the company. We all feel proud – not just the riders – of what we can achieve when we work as a whole company. That was always the point.”

A measured purpose:

Impressive as Ride the Nation was, the original application proved to be just a modest tip to an extraordinary iceberg - an ethos of community that goes far beyond what most companies mean by ‘social responsibility’. PwC defines its overall purpose as “to build trust in society and solve important problems”.

There is a tendency to cast a cynical eye at high-sounding corporate purposes and even to doubt the sincerity that lies behind charitable activities, presenting them instead as a fig-leaf to cover naked greed. There’s no need to search activist blogs for a jaundiced take on CSR, articles querying its value can be found in many business publications.

It’s an attitude of which PwC is clearly aware: on the first line of the global annual review, the company explicitly states that corporate social responsibility is a business imperative that is key to future success - not a ‘nice-to-have’, but an essential. Listening to Chantal and Leighton, it is clear why. As individuals, they are proud to work for the firm. They believe in its purpose and are inspired by it. When employees feel like this and act on it, then the trust of the communities in which they live follows naturally When they speak of ‘companies’, the cynics often seem to forget that businesses are made up of people.

By framing it in those terms, it becomes easier to see why the business is prepared to invest so heavily in CSR. Like this year’s winner of the Spark Award, Places for People (you can read the article here), PwC takes care that there is no contradiction between activities that contribute directly to profit and those with an indirect connection. Both serve the same purpose.

As Caroline Fleming, Senior Manager for Experience and Engagement, points out, 'Doing the right thing' is an important aspect of our culture at PwC and with this comes a strong focus on engagement. Every survey we do has shown a high correlation between employee engagement, positive client feedback and unit profitability. Put simply, the more engaged our staff, the more money the business makes. And one of the key things that makes our employees proud to work here is a social purpose they also believe in. We also know we can't stand still so are aware of the need to constantly give new things a go, such as the PwC Games later this year."

Given the nature of PwC’s business, it is not surprising that measuring the impact of CSR activities is a key piece of work in itself, and the firm quantifies the social value and business benefits of all its major activities. So it knows that CSR builds engagement, skills, networks and social and environmental awareness – all of which are important for business success.”

A social enterprise hub

The scale of the firm’s ambition, and its commitment to innovative, impactful CSR programmes is equally demonstrated by the social enterprise hub it’s set up in London. The “Fire Station”, in London Bridge, is a historic building, which PwC has converted into a centre for social enterprise, bringing together different players who can support each other. The ground floor is a busy bar and restaurant – Brigade – a unique partnership between PwC, De Vere Venues and the Beyond Food charity which offers apprenticeships to homeless people, helping them get back into full time employment as chefs. The middle floor of the building is devoted to The School for Social Entrepreneurs and PwC’s own Centre for Social Impact, which it uses to deliver many of its community activities, as well as to share knowledge on social change and social value measurement. Finally, the top floor houses SEUK (the UK’s national body for social enterprise) and Blossom’s Healthcare who run all the private healthcare for PwC, but who also look after the physical and emotional wellbeing of the Brigade apprentices.

The restaurant and bar looks busy when I visit it on a bleak January afternoon. In the kitchens the team are gearing up for evening service – bringing out the freshly baked bread and checking over the sustainably sourced produce. Soon, the restaurant plans to introduce an apprenticeship programme for front of house staff as well, to increase its impact in the local area. Many of the guests at the bar when I visit are PwC staff. “Our people are proud of Brigade,” explains David Adair, Head of Community Affairs, “They like to support it by bringing clients here – and friends as well!”

It’s worth quoting Michael, one of the former apprentices at Brigade who has since found long-term employment and who perhaps best sums up the transformative nature of the programmes PwC has set up. “A year and a half ago I was homeless … yesterday, I was working at the Dorchester! This is really something that’s going to change my life forever.”

The restaurant is located right next to one of PwC’s biggest offices, which helps build a close relationship between the venture and staff. Over 50 have worked as mentors for the apprentices on Brigade’s programme. So it’s no wonder that employees feel proud of the firm’s corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Many of the charities and social enterprises that have passed through the Fire Station have maintained close links with PwC. The company not only continues to mentor them, but offers practical support, when it can. Harry Specter’s chocolates, for example, is a social enterprise that offers employment opportunities for people on the autism spectrum. They now make the chocolates that PwC uses as corporate gifts and for community events.

Value versus figures

PwC is committed to making real change happen through its community activities and the corporate sustainability team use quite sophisticated measurement techniques to check this is the case. For example, they conducted a social return on investment analysis for Brigade restaurant last year, around the time of it’s third birthday. The results were certainly interesting. For every pound invested in the Brigade restaurant, for example, £1.57 of social value is generated. And yet, an even more important measure lies behind this ambitious venture. When the first 60 apprentices in the programme were asked to review the impacts on their lives, they discussed tangible and intangible benefits (from being in work to feeling confident and motivated). Yet when asked if there were any impacts not being reported, all of them opted for the ultimate, intangible measurement – happiness.

It encapsulates the PwC approach. Outcomes must be evaluated and measured because that enables smarter investment and prioritisation decisions. But measurement can’t always rule decision-making. Some stuff you do just because it’s right. Because it makes people happy.

Bonkers, but brilliant.

Take the pantomime. For the last thirty years, PwC has put on an annual pantomime which is written by alumni (i.e. former employees), constructed, managed, performed – including a full orchestra – stage-managed and fully staffed by employees.

The panto is put on in impressive venues – the Peacock Theatre in London or the Manchester Opera House, for example – with an audience made up of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds who would not otherwise be taken to a theatre performance. Each year up to 10,000 kids come from schools in inner city areas which the company works with – they are bused in, given refreshments, watch the show and are bused home again. To widen access to the show, PwC also organises a ‘signed’ show, as well as running tours for blind and partially-sighted children.

I am offered tickets to see the show along with my 7 year-old daughter. It is clear that this is something of a special favour. Because of the focus on giving kids a good time, only a few tickets are available for employees to attend and they are snapped up quickly.

The show is astonishingly enjoyable. The music is excellent, the costumes, set and props (all handmade by employees) are superb, and the performances are top notch. There are a number of excellent singers and dancers who could grace any professional show, and I lose my heart to the pantomime cow, although my daughter prefers the tap-dancing penguin. The children scream in delight and dance to re-written pop favourites while the adults snigger at some deliciously dreadful puns. It is, to be perfectly honest, streets ahead of the professional pantomime starring various soap opera actors that I was dragged to before Christmas.

Yet putting on a performance at this scale is costly – not just in money, but in time and energy. It is, I say to the producer (Tara Kent, a Talent and Deployment Manager for the African business in her day job) utterly bonkers.

She nods enthusiastically. “Isn’t it? But isn’t that also rather wonderful? You wouldn’t believe how many people tell me that they chose to work for PwC because they’d heard about the panto. They felt it showed we understood that having fun mattered.”

And that, of course, is the root of the idea. As you might expect, they take their fun pretty seriously. There is no desire to turn the PwC pantomime into a clique of Am-Dram luvvies. They insist that 25% of each year’s cast and crew must be completely new and that the biggest roles are often given – not to the most gifted performers – but to those who will learn or develop most as a result of it.

“Nothing like performing while dressed in drag to a thousand screaming kids to cure a fear of public speaking,” I suggest.

“Exactly!” Tara beams in reply. “And nothing more humbling for a senior Board Member than to get up on stage (we make sure at least one has a cameo every year) and realise how terrifying it is!”

Just like the cycle ride, the annual pantomime has at its heart a desire to cut through the hierarchies and organisational divisions inevitable in a company as large as PwC. While its ostensible focus is on a charitable outcome, the company is aware of the extended benefits it brings to employees. Not only does it develop and help individuals, but it builds unexpected connections between groups.

“I belong to dozens of networking groups inside and outside PwC” Tara explains, “but the panto is the best. People who’ve been part of it will always be there to help you. Just knowing someone else has also donned the hi-viz jacket to get hordes of sugar-crammed kids onto buses is an instant bond!”

It is gloriously and unashamedly eccentric in the best British tradition, (although I was delighted to hear that the Hong Kong office had been so inspired, they decided that they would run their own). At a time where plenty of offices can barely organise a Christmas drinks together, the exceptional collaboration and commitment required by a full professional theatre run is something that can hardly be celebrated enough.

It is, as Tara Kent pointed out, symbolic of a company ethos where happiness really matters. I defy even the most hardened of cynics to watch the crowds of children singing their hearts out and screaming “Behind you!!”, to see the gusto with which the cast launch into the extended final number and still doubt the sincerity with which PwC treats its commitment to building vibrant communities.

About the Author

Helen Walton is co-founder of Gamevy, an employee-owned tech start-up with no bosses. They also run Spark the Change - a conference designed to help other companies consider management innovation and radical methods of working. Spark the Change runs in London and Toronto - follow @SparkConf. Helen is a marketer who has worked on brands in make-up, skincare, fine art publishing and financial services. She is also a professional writer with eclectic interests, meaning she has authored several books on Agile Software Management, as well as puppet and radio plays... She's always happy to debate these topics or anything else on twitter @helenislovely.

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