RICHARD BRANSON Contributor

Sir Richard Branson is the founder of Virgin Group and one of the world's best known entrepreneurs.

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Richard Branson: Giving back to the community

Published 12 July 2012 04:29, Updated 13 July 2012 10:37

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Take a look around at your community and you will likely see problems that need to be fixed – from reversing environmental degradation to creating local jobs. As an entrepreneur or business leader, you have a role to play in solving those problems.

In the course of their everyday transactions, businesses build communities linked to their products and services; imagine if we focused on mobilising those communities to bring about change. Coca-Cola sells 1.7 billion drinks every day, from Paris to Mumbai. If a fraction of those consumers were inspired to do something good each time they drank a Coke, the company really would be teaching the world to sing.

Remember that a company does not constitute just one community; there are its employees, its suppliers and its customers. And the brands that are most successful connect with people as individuals, not just as an order number or a transaction, which makes it easier to communicate and rally them to act. There have been many pioneers in this area, notably Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, who used their products to raise awareness and campaign on behalf of good causes.

They created the Peace Pop ice cream bars in 1988 to build support for their campaign to get the United States military to shift 1 per cent of its budget to peaceful, life-improving initiatives. Later, in 2006, this evolved into an American Pie campaign (and a new ice-cream flavour) to prompt consumers to demand this shift in spending priorities. There were many more campaigns that Ben & Jerry’s took part in, from encouraging people to vote to raising awareness about rainforests.

At a leadership gathering at my home, Ben Cohen said: “I think that business is the most powerful force in the country. When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just in its narrow self-interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made.”

It can be tricky to keep that community going after your business is sold, as Ben & Jerry’s was to Unilever.

“It certainly has not been smooth sailing 100 per cent of the time since Unilever took over,” Cohen told me. “Jerry and I now play a consultant role with the team from Ben & Jerry’s. The great opportunity we have is to act like a virus for good within a huge company like Unilever to influence their decision making across all their brands.”

When we at Virgin Group first started Virgin Unite some seven years ago, with the goal of organising the charitable efforts of people within and outside the company to accomplish more, we found that what our staff and business partners all wanted was quality versus quantity. They told us that they didn’t want to be offered volunteer opportunities that won’t use their most valuable skills. They wanted to take part in tailored efforts that would have far more impact. So we created what we called “hit squads”.

The hit squads are a great way for our staff members to donate their professional skills to a non-profit organisation over a few very focused days. This may involve bringing together marketing experts from across our group or creating a team with a mixed set of skills; sometimes we bring in consultants as well. Although this is volunteer work, we make sure the non-profit organisation and the team takes their work seriously by setting clear, deliverable goals and treating the assignment as though our company is being paid.

These assignments are not only great for staff morale but are also a great training and development tool as team members demonstrate their strengths and skills in a different area. We’ve donated time to grassroots organisations and to large ones such as Archbishop Tutu’s Peace Centre and Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation. A team member from Virgin Holidays wrote to me: “Knowing that the information we shared will indirectly help vulnerable children across the world made for a hugely satisfying experience. It made me proud to be part of Virgin.”

What skills do you and your employees have that you can donate? No matter how small or large your business, as an entrepreneur or business leader you are uniquely positioned to change the world. Do your part in creating a new way of doing business that will lead to a fairer, more equitable and healthy world.

Next week: Brumby’s Bakeries founder Michael Sherlock

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