When I first started working at Tier 1, CSR was easy. Our customers (or those ones that wanted to) donated end of life IT that was usable, but not worth very much, via our charity partner, Digital Links, a well-run organisation that ran projects in the developing world which needed our cast-off computers, monitors and printers.

Ten years later, things are far more complex. I meet with CSR professionals with MSc qualifications in their chosen vocation who have turned away from simply writing cheques or donating assets to the other side of the world. Rather, they are tasked by senior executives with building business cases for corporate community investment, strategic plans of how compassion can bring sustainable results and profitability. Just look at the financial input of bookmakers and alcoholic drinks manufacturers into gamble-aware and responsible drinking campaigns.

Naturally, the economic climate has shaped this change and any form of investment has to yield a return so that shareholders are satisfied. Indeed, don’t be surprised if this more strategic form of patronage becomes even more calculated.

Tier 1 has invested heavily in a CSR proposition that successfully demonstrates the values of management and staff and has attracted the positive attention of existing – and crucially – new customers. The rehabilitation of ex-offenders is not a new concept and has been embraced by a number of large corporate entities (http://www.tier1.com/services/computer-recycling). But why do many of these supporters of giving people a second chance shy away from publicity about their chosen values? Why isn’t every corporate business trusting Tier 1 with their end of life IT equipment in order to help change lives?

The answer, I fear, is that there are certain social problems of which prison rehabilitation is one, that look like bad investments.

Supporting responsible gambling or drinking makes perfect sense; reaching out to your present and future customers and lengthening their boozing or gaming lifespan is profitable stuff. Helping the perpetrators of crime and the unhappiness it creates is less logical.

So this is where Tier 1 has become creative. We recognise that staff morale from volunteering is boosted; so does our customer Atos. Their staff volunteer as mentors with ex-offenders that have come trough the Tier 1-funded ‘through the gate’ programme. Attracting the rising stars of the future isn’t easy, but Atos recognise that benefits such as the ability to participate in social value programmes is important to the new crop of graduates. From Tier 1’s perspective, it vindicates our own views, but it helps to form a long term partnership that we know will boost Atos knowing that there’s more of an incentive to stick with the initiative if its providing long term benefits to them.

Back to ex-offenders. As we’ve said, former criminals whose crimes have warranted custodial sentences are a difficult social problem. As such, they tend not to attract much public corporate interest and consequently offer scant reward in terms of a commercial return. The social stigma of criminality means ex-offenders are looked down on. The reasons they turned to crime and often repeatedly offended are complex and plentiful; the solution is often equally difficult. Corporate business knows all this of course, but it also means there’s a high probability of failure, so they take a decision not to stick their necks out, instead favouring less-difficult causes.

They then have to build the business case. Fortunately, most businesses are not legally obligated to exclude ex-offenders in their operations. Their reputations and ethical positions suggest that they demand the same standards of their suppliers. Ex-offenders have the right not to be exploited.

So why do companies at opposite ends of the corporate spectrum like Tier 1 and Atos support the cause of rehabilitation? In my mind, our attitude to social value is genuine and we put our money where our mouths are by employing and mentoring graduates of the back to work programme that we help to fund. It takes a big effort for an SME like us to stick our necks out, publicise our support and convince potential customers that they should do the same.

It’s extremely difficult to prove the relationship between a responsible corporate culture and upwardly trending business performance, particularly when from my experience, the claims of many businesses to be truly motivated by social value are untrue. CSR declarations in annual reports are just simply declarations. For big companies like Atos however, they are making their stance loud and clear.

If CSR initiatives are to be run like other aspects of the business, with a commercial justification and visible cost-benefit deliverables, then both Atos and Tier 1 have shown that advancement is needed. Tier 1 has shown that successful businesses are about innovation, imagination and the willingness to take a risk. At the same time, many CSR projects are conventional, obvious and uninspired. In investment terms, does this make them low-yield?

Supporters of ex-offenders are demonstrating real bravery. Direct commercial returns are barely-there; Atos do not supply their IT outsourcing services to thousands of ex-offenders. Yet, thanks to the increasing number of mentors and volunteers working with disadvantaged individuals, the resulting increase in morale and ability to supply better-equipped staff should ultimately enable their customers to spot the difference.

Jon Selby.

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