A mission to connect big businesses with small VCSE organisations

Can Environmental Social Governance (ESG) or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) really have an impact on the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) Sector? Our lead for social enterprise projects, Susan Ross, talks about the Volunteering Challenge she's involved with.

As a VCSE advocate for over 20 years, having worked within the sector and volunteering in a range of guises including as a trustee for a community foodbank, palliative care charity, a voluntary director of a health and wellbeing CIC (Community Interest Company), and a chair of my local community association improving my own community. I guess you can say I’m often at the ‘coal face’ (yes I’m northern and no pun intended) of volunteering and community regeneration.  I also spend part of my professional life advising VCSE organisations, developing social enterprise and recruiting volunteers to take on a range of tasks including drivers for a community run electric vehicle car club.

Challenge in the Tees Valley….

Back in January 2022 I took on a new challenge as a ‘Social Enterprise Lead’ at ED/GE Innovation, working in the Tees Valley Business Challenge Programme.  A new and innovative challenge approach in the North East, focussed on the Tees Valley area, using Governmental Community Renewal Fund monies to deliver solutions, to complex issues across a wide range of sectors which all small and medium enterprises (SME’s) within the Tees Valley can respond to, known as the Tees Valley Business Challenge – TVBC.

It really is a challenge – to deliver a new type of innovation programme and develop new products and services, linking large businesses and SME’s within 6 months! For those of you reading this and work within the VCSE or funded organisations I can hear you shouting about the ridiculous timescales and short lived nature of such a programme. However, as a precursor to the long anticipated Government Shared Prosperity Fund it has been a unique way of working without the usual prescriptive nature which often precludes real innovation.

So far in the challenge I have worked with 8 businesses directly and networked with a further 9 through the various business support sessions, created and delivered through the programme. It has been really insightful seeing first-hand innovations across some pretty large and meaty issues including fuel poverty and decarbonisation of homes, improving mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and now a new challenge - volunteering. Supporting the VCSE to develop and increase capacity by connecting large corporates with VCSE organisations to co-create new and exciting frameworks and ways of working to make ESG/ CSR more impactful.

What even is ESG/ CSR?

Environmental, Social Governance is effectively the new Corporate Social Responsibility. It is a holistic way of doing business and now it is a legal requirement in the UK for companies with over 500 employees as of April 2022. It is how companies assess their impact on the world and how they measure and mitigate. Taking into account environmental factors such as carbon emissions, pollution, waste, energy efficiency and travel. Governance of the organisation to ensure that it abides by the highest standards of ethics, taxation, financial accounting, whilst encouraging whistle-blowers and deterring bribery and corruption. Socially it considers inclusive and diverse workforces, safety and advancement opportunities, community and charitable work. It should also work through supply chains and consider the impact through the entire value chain to the customers and end consumers.  Although legally it only currently affects large corporates it is effectively good practice for all organisations to consider measures to reduce an organisation’s negative impact and promote a vision for social and environmental advancement.

Is there an issue with ESG volunteering, can we make it more meaningful?

Think of the workplace volunteering you may have been involved in? I know personally that it often involves being allowed a couple of days a year away from the day job to give something back. But are we really giving enough? Is having some very highly paid and skilled executives painting a wall or digging a path, doing a litter pick really making a difference to our communities? Is it making a difference to their organisations? Are we effectively paying ‘lip service’ or simply enacting random acts of kindness?  Yes, it can be novel getting away from the day job for a few days (if you can spare the time and the mounting inbox of emails while you’re away) and from a team building point of view some socialising away from the water butt or kettle is a pleasure but does it support the local community? Is there a better way? Surely utilising the skills in marketing, sales, business planning, accountancy, HR, digitisation could be used much better in community organisations who would really value that support?

Alternative options?

Multinationals are already thinking differently about how they can give back to their communities and VCSE in different ways including eBay UK where they have an eBay for Change where social enterprises can trade with zero fees, they can also access business support to improve their offer, scale and develop new opportunities. Through the Tees Valley Business Challenge Programme I have had the opportunity to speak to a cornucopia of people from the corporate and VCSE world who would like to see another way. From the Managing Director of a multibillion pound organisation who would like to make new connections locally with new organisations and create new networks. To the VCSE advisor who would like to see longer-term fundamental engagement where new trustees come forward to the social enterprise Chief Executive who would like to see disruption to this way of working and more transformative ways created, maybe there is…

We have created the new Tees Valley Business Challenge Volunteering Programme where we are looking for challenge holders (large corporate organisations) and VCSE’s to come forward to work together to develop new ways of working. Proactively through a range of business support and design led workshops to create a toolbox, toolkit, or framework that will allow new ways to engage that will bring more fundamental benefits to both organisations and long-term working arrangements.

But what’s the benefit to the corporate sector? Isn’t it just another box ticking exercise for my ESG framework….

Sadly, the VCSE is often seen as the poor relation, possibly because we are always trying to find money to keep services going and having to complete for ever decreasing pots of funding.  However, the VCSE sector has an abundance of expertise, collaborative ways of working, methods of engaging with people directly and understanding from a ground-up approach. The sector is like no other, the passion, innovation, excitement and commitment is in my opinion unparalleled. They strive to continually improve the ways in which they work and also to improve outcomes for our communities.  Not to mention the feel good factor when you can see the difference you are making directly to peoples lives. By engaging with the VCSE and working within VCSE organisations it can bring a new perspective, understanding, emotional intelligence and can broaden your skills set. It can assist aspiring leaders to work in different organisations whilst giving something back and using skills to help them grow and in doing so become more sustainable and do more great things.

The benefits of working together can bring real value for both sectors, creating new networks, suppliers, where communities can thrive.

Will it work? What if we can’t create the cross-sector systems to create meaningful change?

Who knows after all this is the point of the TVBC programme to trial new ways of working, experiment and innovate. In the words of a well know drinks brand ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ In my humble opinion the worst that can happen is that we connect a range of organisations cross sector and in doing so we start new partnerships. That in my book, is a win! Thanks for reading, Susan.

Want to know more?

For more details of the Tees Valley Business Challenge please check out the website:

TVCA Business Challenges - Edge Innovation (ed-ge.uk)