Responsible Businesses Rise to the Social Value Challenge

What do you think of when you hear the term Corporate Social Responsibility? Do you think of qualified lawyers and accountants being sent to Africa to paint school walls? Or the annual Volunteering Day where people get out of the office to fundraise or contribute to worthy activities in the local community? Charity of the Year initiatives and photo opportunities featuring oversized cheques perhaps?

Companies are defined by what they do, not what they give. My hope is that soon the term Corporate Social Responsibility will no longer be needed and that corporations will be responsible as a matter of course across all of their activities, but in the meantime anybody looking for reasons to be cheerful in CSR should take a look at how large companies are starting to review and rewire the impact of their supply chains.

Companies are starting to bring social value out of the CSR department and into the heart of their operations by looking at who they spend their money with. The purchasing power of many large companies is at such a scale that even modest changes in supplier selection can bring about significant social impact, either positive or negative.

Social Enterprise UK’s Buy Social Corporate Challenge, supported by Business In The Community and the Office for Civil Society, is helping businesses to purchase some of the products and services they need from social enterprises. There is huge potential in this initiative because it isn’t actually asking companies to do anything new. All large companies need suppliers to provide services such as office cleaning, logistics, software development, catering, promotional video and so on, and social enterprises can deliver all of these services. The payoff is that social enterprises are able to gain the regular, reliable contracts that they (as with all small businesses) need to become financially sustainable and grow. The social enterprises still have to compete on quality and price, but they bring an added value, such as helping people who are distant from the job market get back into work.

The commitment by the companies which are programme partners should be recognised and commended:

Wates Group

Johnson & Johnson







The initiative has an ambitious target — £1bn cumulative spend with social enterprise suppliers by 2020 — and the programme’s first year saw a spend of about £20m. This may seem a slow start, but there is a roadmap to achieving the overall target. If 5 new partners sign up to the Challenge per year while existing partners build momentum, this will help to achieve the target.

A couple of years ago, while I was supporting Johnson & Johnson to scope out and initiate a programme of Social Impact through Procurement, I wrote a short guide to share some of the lessons we learnt along the way. One of my key reflections was the importance of building a coalition of champions across the company. This kind of initiative will not make a real difference if it is the pet project of one or two people or is restricted to just one or two divisions or departments. If ‘buying social’ is of interest to you and you think there may be an opportunity to do so at your company, bring it up in conversation with colleagues whenever you get the chance, as it is very likely to be of interest to some of them too.

Guide to Social Value Procurement

As soon as you have brought one or two colleagues onboard, you can collectively build a business case. In the majority of cases, the business case will revolve at least in part around how the company’s procurement with social enterprises can strengthen customer loyalty and/or talent retention among its employees.

The good news is that the Social Enterprise UK website has a range of case studies to show how companies have engaged successfully with social enterprise suppliers.

I have seen how these supply relationships can take off and generate value on all sides. I hope more large companies get onboard because when social enterprises win contracts, we all win.

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