So, the Olympics is over and as the euphoria subsides many are rightly questioning the legacy of these Games. The Olympic sponsors paid tens of millions to be associated with the Olympics. The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ pitched its tent in some of London’s poorest boroughs, but did the sponsors and local communities really connect? And, if they did, what happens now as the show moves on to Rio?
Two years ago Pilotlight brought together nine charities who were already tackling disadvantage in the Olympic boroughs to work with five of the Olympic sponsors (Adidas, BP, BT, Lloyds TSB Commercial Finance and Deloitte).
We asked for a handful of people from each sponsor, drawn from very senior management, to work with the charities over the course of a year. By giving three hours a month, month in month out, the senior executives coached the charities’ leaders, helping them develop their services and plan for the future.
Many of the charities were facing a funding crisis. New Choices for Youth, working with young people in crisis in Plaistow, lost its local government contracts, as did the charity Aanchal, which works with abused women in Newham. It all seemed a million miles away from the Olympic fanfare and both sides must have wondered what was to come of the connection.
Looking back now, there are real lessons about the role of corporate engagement and philanthropy.
The first is that, given proper management of skills, this sort of connection between massive corporates and local charities can work. Surprisingly, this was achieved not by money being given but by drawing senior people from both sides into a real relationship. At first both can find it challenging. Business people from large organisations can find it hard to adjust to the way small charities are run and the budgets they have to work within. The charities often find it difficult to take a step back and see their organisation from an outside perspective. The initial meetings were nervous but they were the start of an extraordinary relationship. Marcia Samuels from New Choices for Youth admits it was tough at times but says she now knows what each of her services cost, and is running a more streamlined and professional organisation as a result. Age Concern Waltham moved from grant-funded to fee-based services. Aanchal increased capacity by 60% and Access Sport is rolling out its services across the country.
We learned that when bringing two different worlds together, respect is key. It also took time: a whole year to develop relationships so that each understood what the other had to say and contribute.
The other lesson was that, when it works well, this type of engagement can change people’s perceptions about charity and philanthropy. Many of the business mentors spoke of their surprise at the daily challenges that small charities face. One senior executive from BT said it made her ‘see things through a different lens’, looking at the nuts and bolts of business on a small scale.
As we see CSR policies become more global and issue based, the Olympic project is a timely reminder that there is much to be gained from business engaging with the community on its doorstep. For one business mentor who worked with a charity in his old home town it was a stronger engagement because of that local connection.
What we are still trying to measure is how deep a legacy the connection is, beyond the immediate results of the work. I heard last week that some of the sponsor teams are wanting to carry on working with charities in the Olympic boroughs, out of the spotlight of the Olympics and from their own budgets. It matters that it is senior people who are involved because that alters their company’s worldview. 80% of people involved in this way go back and influence their company’s strategic giving. Perhaps that is the most precious thing of all.
So, after the caravan of the Olympics moves on to Rio we hope that more corporates will be bold enough to take up the challenge we gave the Olympic sponsors. May they too get up close and personal to the communities they find themselves in.
Fiona Halton is chief executive of Pilotlight