Joseph Hrycak
By Joseph Hrycak on February 08, 2021

The State of CSR with Sir Stephen O'Brien CBE: "I'm Shocked That It's Moved so Little"

Sir Stephen O'Brien CBE shocked at the lack of movement in CSR over the last 15 years.


At Ethical Angel, we’re always reaching out to talk to and gain insights from people in all areas of the business community and third sector. Recently we had the pleasure of speaking with Sir Stephen O’Brien, Convener of Second Curve and former Trustee of Foundation For Future London, Barts NHS Trust and Music in Secondary Schools Trust, to discuss volunteering and its benefits to both the communities it supports and the private sector. I met with Sir Stephen to discuss the evolution of corporate altruism and employee volunteering. 

Sir Stephen has had a broad and varied career, starting in finance in the City of London where he also set up Fullemploy. Fullemploy was an enormous initiative from the private sector to deal with social issues around employment. The approach of Fullemploy supported the development of modern CSR and became a core part of Business in the Community, another organisation that Sir Stephen created.

Following this he turned his attention to the third and public sectors, acting as the Chairman of Teach First, Barts NHS Trust and the University of East London, while also being a passionate advocate for mental health. Through his experience in the private, public and third sectors, Sir Stephen has gained a wealth of knowledge into the needs of communities and how the private sector is best placed to support them. 

Read on to get Sir Stephen’s insights on the current state of volunteering, CSR, how he feels Covid will allow businesses to change for the better and what he thinks needs to happen for businesses to truly have a positive impact on the community. 


Having had such a varied career, what keeps you energised to keep working on new projects?


I grew up wanting to put the world right like so many other people, but found myself by chance, really, in the City of London. Then I got interested in the world of employment which led me into a range of different projects centered around employability, health and the role of business in the community. And if you reach a certain age in life, you discover that the world hasn't changed as much as you hoped it would when you were younger, you have to keep at it. I'm constantly distressed and surprised that there are lots of agendas that we haven't moved on very far over the last 15 years. There's some that we have, obviously, but there are many that we haven't, and it's those that I keep on being interested in.


What do you think the biggest barriers have been to positive change, especially with regard to CSR and volunteering?


I think it would have to be social inertia as we often accept the world as it is. And if you see your career ending up somewhere near the top of business, you don't realise how much authority and power you have or how much change you can make happen. I see my work throughout my career has been trying to get a message across that you, Mr. Large Company, could actually make a huge difference if you did various things that are within your power.


Although there hasn’t been as much change as you feel there should have been over the last 15 years, do you think there's been any acceleration in that change recently?


No, I don't really as I think it got stuck at some stage. Some big issues like the position of women in work have moved on significantly, but if you look at the race agenda I'm shocked that it's moved so little. I say this is because obviously every Chief Executive or Chairman understands that this lack of progress is not building a cohesive, and reasonably just society, but the reason they can't do much about it is they've delegated it so far down through their organisation that they've lost touch. So I think only now with Covid providing a new motivation for change are we likely to see real progress being made as it’s possible for activists to bring their agenda to the forefront again. That’s my hope, anyway.


So you think the pandemic is almost acting as a shock to the system that allows the inertia to be broken?


Yes, it's causing everybody in one way or another to rethink their sense of purpose. There is a clear move amongst businesses to investigate the question “What are we really here for?” Is it just maximising returns for shareholders, or are there other things that we could do that would be better for society?


And with aid budgets being cut both internationally and in the UK, do you think business really is the answer to kind of filling that gap?


I don't think it's the answer to filling the shortages in cash. But I think business can make a huge change to society by organising itself and that often means putting pressure on politicians. We set up London First to use businesses as the principal attractor of inward investment, to convince government that London needed a Mayor of London, and later to drive the London 2012 Olympic bid and Crossrail. It had been going on for about 20 years with politicians not grabbing it. It was getting the business community organised and making it plain that you can't have a successful UK economy unless there's a successful London as well. This is just one example of business organising itself to make something happen that wasn't necessarily in its direct interest. It's to try and build the whole edifice and I think we might just be back in a position where we can do much more of that. 


Is there anything else beyond lobbying the government that business should be doing to support communities?


I could come up with a pretty long list. Some of the things I'm working on at the moment are knife crime in London and children growing up in local authority care. 

Everybody knows there's an epidemic of knife crime, but nobody's really got the business world involved. So we're trying to get the corporate world to say it will play a role in recruiting, training, hiring and supporting young people that might otherwise end up in gangs. 

And the other area that I’m particularly invested in at the moment is children growing up in local authority care. Unfortunately, there are huge numbers of children who grow up in local authority care and end up in the criminal justice system because they can't get work and their families are very often pretty distressed or dispersed. And this is a huge problem. We spend, as a society, £10 billion a year if you put all the costs together, and that's just been verified by PwC. That's obviously a world in which employers can play a very large part. They can offer jobs, support, or training in a way that the public sector can’t.


As a company that's encouraging businesses to engage in volunteering, we’re familiar with many of the benefits it offers, but what would you say the potential and role of virtual volunteering has in supporting communities is?


The potential is absolutely huge. We’ve had a number of good probes in this area but now it's easier to identify where the need is, and where modern communication platforms can maintain contacts that otherwise would be much more different and more difficult. The potential is just huge, utterly huge.

I would say Ethical Angel is right at the forefront of creating change. So far we haven't really organised ourselves to deliver the strength of the business community, but if we can get everyone organised, we can push ourselves and our workforces in that direction.


Yes, it's amazing to see what's possible when you're able to link up people's skills with the people and the organisations that need it most.


Exactly. One example that interests me at the moment is an initiative around female mentoring. Women that fall at the earliest stage of their careers are saying exactly the same thing as their parents were saying 30 or 40 years ago.There's been no help for them to work out how to get through the various barriers that have been erected through history. But now there's a really able female mentoring scheme created by PwC and you can feel the difference already. The mentors are largely from the corporate sector and this connection with business is making a dramatic difference.


I think the power of virtual volunteering, in that sense, is clear. Unfortunately what we've started to witness at Ethical Angel is that a lot of companies are cutting back on their volunteering programmes as a result of the pandemic. What would you say to businesses who are in that position to get them to continue to support communities through volunteering?


Well, I think most business structures really do depend to a large extent on the leadership and insight to the people at the top. So I don't think you have any chance of persuading corporations unless you're dealing with absolutely the top people. If you can engage leadership, and show them that they need to go in the same direction as the younger generation in terms of being socially responsible, you will be able to drive change. It needs somebody like Ethical Angel to say we've got all the history here, we don't need to wait, we just need to get serious about delivering.

What's the tangible benefit of volunteering for businesses and their employees?


You could write several essays on this. It brings your business into contact with the community in a different way and it's clear that young people coming out of our education system want to work for companies that have a clear social purpose. You could build a case for volunteering for any business. There used to be a whole tradition, which again is largely gone, of companies putting people on secondment to community organisations and that built more trust in business. And that is because people know which companies care about the community and which don't.


You’ve highlighted young people coming into the workforce. What role do you think they have to play in encouraging businesses and their employees to do more?


Well, marvellously, it seems to me, they've grabbed the whole agenda for sustainability and are making it their own. I carried out a poll amongst my grandchildren, and asked which of the subject matters that are current they most want to put their energy and life into, and they all chose sustainability, followed by stuff around diversity.

I think there's a huge power growing all the time, as young people get into the workplace, and it is going to force the corporate world where it has yet to go in this direction and take that to the top of their agenda. You can see it beginning to happen in some cases already.


So you'd say it's very much a case of saying to the purpose generation “you're doing the right thing, just keep going because it will make change”?


Yes, because the corporate world won't be able to stand against it if their younger, brighter, upwardly mobile workforce are all working in the same sort of direction around improving society. I think they're bound to follow.


I believe so as well, and we can only hope to see that happen. Another thing we’ve witnessed at Ethical Angel is the third sector being slow to embrace virtual volunteering, despite the obvious benefits it offers in terms of skilled support. What would you say to charities to encourage them to embrace new technology like Ethical Angel and see how it could help them beyond your traditional forms of corporate volunteering?


That's a good question. I'd start answering that by saying that the whole world of charity is still very fragmented. It doesn't really matter what area you go to, you'll find a lot of competing charities looking for funds and support from the corporate world. If they could find a way of working together and saying what they all need, how volunteers can help and setting up a system to deliver it as they’re all trying to do marginally different versions of the same thing. That way, you get it much more mainstream. I think it's coming. But that way, I think you could do much more much quicker.


So you would say it's really a case of the third sector trying to become less fragmented and more cohesive?


I wouldn't take that too far. But I would say if you're in the same sphere of activity in the third sector you'd get so much more done by working with others that have the same set of aspirations.


Do you think technology like Ethical Angel will play a key part in helping the community come together and see where they can collaborate?


I do. Take knife crime in Tottenham, I don't know how many different organisations have been formed there with some aspect of looking after young people, but I don’t think it would be very difficult to get a group of charities working together to make a much bigger impact than trying it separately. Take employment for instance, if you are trying to get young people into work in Harringay, you've got a lot going against you if you're trying to get them into a big accountancy award business. But if you simply said, these young people have got skills that are really valuable for the IT sector, particularly the small business part of the IT sector, let's work together on this. I think you could work miracles quite quickly.


I can totally see where you're coming from. Looking further into the need for cohesion, the UN has tried to bring it by creating their Sustainable Development Goals. But despite them existing we haven't quite seen the cohesion that they were hoping to bring. Do you think the Sustainable Development Goals are the right way to bring it?


Well, I think somebody has to bring that cohesion and the bit I'm interested in is how companies work together on this. Because you can't deny that the present stage of sustainability has been partly brought about by the corporate world itself, over a long period. So if you can get the corporate world across the boundaries that are both international as well as within individual companies to apply themselves simultaneously, I think you could make a huge difference. And I think that is the pressure the younger generation coming through will push on us all, and especially in the corporate world. 


I totally agree. I think you can only hope that the pressure from the purpose generation does start to bring that change. I think the pandemic especially has given people a sense of agency that they didn't have before that you can and you can make change. But you know, that's, that's when we can move on.


Exactly, and I would just add that positive change isn't going to come from the political system unless huge pressure is put on it, and businesses has an absolute key role to play in that.


If you’d like to speak with us about how we can support your business to make a difference through virtual volunteering, request a demo of Ethical Angel today. 

Or if you’re a third sector organisation looking for additional support, visit our Cause page to find out more about how our virtual volunteers can help you.

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Published by Joseph Hrycak February 8, 2021
Joseph Hrycak