It’s everywhere isn’t it — the Big Society. It started as a policy idea in the 2010 Conservative election manifesto, and then gained loftier ambitions as one of the coalition government’s flagship policies.
Although David Cameron is accused of not being really clear about what the concept really stands for, most people seem to get that, in essence, the ‘massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities’ is about getting more people to do more at a local level, for free.
And that includes business. Corporate Social Responsibility and charity of the year now seems very 1990s. Now it’s all about Business Connectors and the Big Society Bank. The Government has asked Business in the Community (BiTC) to help create a network of 1,000 pioneer Business Connectors, while the Bank proposes using around £60m that sits in English bank accounts that have been dormant for 15 years or more to invest in social projects.
I actually think Business Connectors are a great idea but what’s the incentive? Maybe I haven’t read the fine print close enough, but companies are being asked to ‘free up’ their employees’ time to act as brokers between the business community and the voluntary community in a particular area. That’s fine for the big corporates, but, let me tell you, there’s going to have to be quite an effective infrastructure around this to make it happen among small- to medium-sized enterprises that are struggling to keep their business going let alone taking on another responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the will isn’t there but it’s tough at the moment to get support for local community groups. I speak from experience – I help run a local Village Hall and we’ve been trying to find an accountant to pull together our annual accounts on a pro bono basis for months now. Luckily we have finally found one through the organisation Reach Skills. I understand it – for professional services, time is money and giving it away is hard right now when what’s more pressing is keeping and making fees.
Maybe we should raise the status of volunteering and introduce some sort of continuous professional development that gets taken into account as much as academic and professional qualification when you apply for jobs. Did you know, you can actually achieve a Certificate in Community Volunteering through the recognised approved body and educational charity ASDAN.
Maybe if this was a more widely recognised qualification that held more weight in job interviews, more individuals in smaller businesses would be encouraged to get involved in their local communities knowing it was going to be a win-win situation. Career enhancing professional development and helping out. What a perfect combination.
Back to the Big Society, I think Charlotte Leslie MP will be a great ambassador – she seems to be genuinely passionate about local communities and has given much of her own free time to supporting local causes, and not just to build a political career.
If she can just make volunteering as simple as possible to fit it into the business agenda without it being another ‘must do’ tagged on to the end of a 10-hour day and a win for both sides she might just help David deliver his big concept.
And she’s my local MP, so Charlotte, if you’re reading this, we’re short of a bar person a fortnight on Friday at the annual Village Hall wine tasting — any chance you could pop in and help out?