From Small (and Medium) Acorns

Approximately 99% of businesses in developed countries are small or medium sized.

I was astounded when I first learnt this fact, and now I think about it, it set me on my current path with Coethica. At that moment I was working closely with Business in the Community during my time at Everton Football Club and verged on being obsessed with this newly discovered CSR thing. After a little midnight researching I was further amazed at the lack of support and apparent motivation to stimulate SME CSR awareness and action. My naiive question at the time was why Corporate Social Responsibility? Was it an elite club? Sometimes it felt that way. No room for the small guy. I’m not going to get hung up on the name here or an accurate definition as that shouldn’t be the priority.

There have been a few attempts at addressing the lack of energy at the smaller end of the spectrum with a two year initiative in North West England called Responsibility Northwest (don’t you love the creativity) and a notable recent document titled “How material is ISO 26000 Social Responsibility to SMEs”.

It’s not rocket science. If we can encourage a large number of smaller business to make a small improvement, the overall impact could be substantial.

The problems have been largely due to the lack of real understanding of the SME world, in particular, the psychology of those who work there. The two things in short supply to any owner / manager are time and money. The traditional approach of goverments or corporations preaching about ‘making a difference’ will only ever motivate the more morally aware, if they ever even noticed any message broadcast. The most common argument against CSR by smaller business managers is “What’s in it for me?”. One attempt in the UK was the Small Business Journey website and accompanying Better Business Journey document. Both miss the point. Firstly, if you don’t know, you don’t know. These tools would never be discovered unless you were looking for them. Secondly, most Managing Directors / CEOs of a SME wouldn’t get past page two. Neither sold the idea and felt a like a boring school lesson.

Every SME business regardless of size does CSR, most don’t even know it, others don’t manage it. They are usually at least competent at whatever they are in business to do, printing, web design, accountantancy, construction etc, that is, not save the planet or society.

This was driven home like a sledgehammer during regional climate change consultation just before Christmas 2008. A small select private sector group and those faciliating the event were literally open mouthed when I suggested that most SMEs didn’t care about climate change because they still didn’t see it as their problem. Not a reassuring statement but unfortuntely pretty accurate. Bob Willard makes a good case in his DVD “The Business Case for Sustainability” and also will provide valuable data in spreadsheet form from his website for a small fee.

We need to be using a completely different language, talking to entrepeneurs at their level. Peer to peer stimulus offers a route to credibility, acceptance and engagement that hasn’t been properly explored. The CSR journey is a long road and I believe we need to motivate individual businesses differently. We need to demonstrate quick wins that are aligned to core commercial objectives and then set the next target higher, one step at a time.

Increased appropriate legislation needs to play its part, but a concerted approach by all support agencies, existing SME champions and peer networks to educate and inspire could very well plant some seeds now with the corporations of tomorrow.

Since establishing Coethica I’ve spoken to literally hundreds of SME owners, managers and employees and tried as many different approaches to sell the concept. Trust me, after a few of years visiting dozens of BNI chapters and trying to perfect a 60 second sales pitch for a CSR consultancy I think I’ve learnt a couple of lessons.

…In case you want to know what my final pitch became – “I help your business make more profit.” Like I said, it’s not rocket science but somebody has to actually do it!

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