Corporate responsibility

Learning to be Neighbourly

Meet the organisation that helps big business care for the community

A cosy pub at Christmas filled with lively chatter and laughter. A community café staffed by volunteers serving cake and coffee to local shoppers. A once-graffiti-covered wall freshly painted, showing off the newly planted ground – which used to be litter-strewn – in front of it.

These are all heart-warming examples of local communities coming together for the greater good. But there’s a link between these projects. They are all supported by big businesses that realise there’s a benefit to their balance sheet in helping their local communities. What has brought these sides together is four-year old British not-for-profit Neighbourly.

It may not yet be a household name itself but well-known companies, such as Marks & Spencer, Heineken, Prudential, The Body Shop, Lidl and Starbucks, are using the Neighbourly platform to connect themselves with community projects.

More than 8,000 good causes, from community kitchens and food banks to conservation programmes and sheltered housing, have used Neighbourly to seek help and donations. Businesses have donated ten tonnes of products, pledged more than 15,000 volunteer days and distributed more than seven million meals-worth of surplus food since 2015. They have also pledged almost £8 million in funds.

Neighbourly works as a social network, bringing together local causes, people and businesses. In his previous career as a marketer, founder Nick Davies realised that, while big brands wanted to help the communities they operated in, they did not know how to find relevant projects with which they could get involved.

Davies, who heads up a Bristol based staff of 22, originally started Neighbourly to help redistribute food surplus and that’s still part of it – every Marks & Spencer shop, for example, passes on its surplus to local groups and concerns. To date, M&S has donated more than 4.9 million meals. But companies then wanted to do more, he says.

‘Businesses come to our platform because their staff want to help their local communities and we help them find suitable causes. Businesses find us by word of mouth and recommendation from others – we’ve never advertised.’

But why don’t companies do this for themselves? Would it be so hard for the branch staff of a major retailer to get together and help clear litter from a beach, for example?

‘The problem is that it takes time: it’s not easy. You can’t expect a store manager to do all the necessary arrangements: you need control,’ explains Davies. However, he says that the idea to get involved with a community project usually comes from the employees, not management.

‘There’s research that shows three out of four millennials would take a pay cut to work at a company which has a positive impact on their community. They want to work at businesses which demonstrate that they aren’t just about maximising profit, that they want to make a positive difference to the people and place they are based in,’ he explains.

There are also attractive advantages for companies wishing to get involved with such schemes. Your company might have laudable values but how do your customers know this? You want to show that you care about the communities you operate in – because, after all, those communities comprise your customers. So, if your colleagues take part in an event then customers can see your company ‘doing good’.

And yes, says Davies, that can have a positive effect on your profits. Neighbourly works by providing a platform for causes, people and companies. It’s free for causes and individuals: companies pay a fee to be on the platform.

Causes put details of their projects on the site and then companies – or individuals – can search for ones that match their criteria. Neighbourly vets all the causes, and on occasion, albeit rarely, has rejected some. Projects are categorised under the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which cover the themes of food, conservation and the environment, under topics ranging from ‘affordable and clean energy’ to ‘life on land’ and ‘reduced inequalities’.

A company might search for local projects and then make a monetary donation to one while its staff also volunteer to help the cause, donating working hours. Neighbourly also claims that its ‘matching algorithm’ makes it easy for companies to discover communities that are important to their employees and customers.

Marks & Spencer was an early enthusiastic adopter of Neighbourly. ‘They have been involved in 1,900 separate causes,’ says Davies. ‘M&S is active in building a relationship with the community. Every single store gives their food surplus to the local community – simple things like this show that they care. And M&S recognised that their colleagues wanted to make a difference – so they get involved in local projects and the community can see that they are making a difference.’

Indeed, M&S stores are now connected to more than 850 local charities. Starbucks is another Neighbourly company. ‘A really interesting thing is Starbucks’ Cheer for Good at Christmas project,’ says Davies. ‘Each branch chooses two local projects and asks customers to cheer for one or both of them. The one which gets the most cheers gets a £1,000 donation and the other gets £500 so nobody loses.’

As people ‘cheer’ via social media it also benefits Starbucks’ profile – all those ‘Likes’ are positive publicity. Starbucks is also involved in helping community cafes in some areas, offering training for staff as well as coffee and other drinks and food.

‘Starbucks did this because they understand that the community is important – and what with the parlous state of our high streets, by helping community cafes it is playing a part in keeping them going. Starbucks needs the high street to be healthy – so there are benefits to both sides in such a project,’ says Davies.

A similarly heart-warming story comes from Heineken’s Neighbourly involvement, which is centred around the communities that are home to its seven UK breweries. At Christmas, Heineken runs a project called Brewing Good Cheer.

‘They get people in their local communities who are at risk of being isolated and lonely and they bring them in minibuses to a local pub where they get a free lunch and drink – and most importantly, they get social interaction with others. This is the kind of project which has a real impact: it is dealing with difficult issues which can affect the health and happiness of many in the community,’ says Davies.

Heineken’s staff are invited to perform a ‘simple role’: to welcome and chat to their guests over lunch. Last year, the first of 50 lunches under the Brewing Good Cheer banner was launched by former boxing champion Frank Bruno while the previous year National Poetry Slam champion Solomon Ogunmefun-Brooker visited three community pubs and wrote a poem celebrating their role to launch the campaign.

Both events were shared on social media, which Davies believes is an important part of the process. ‘Storytelling is important for brands,’ says Davies. ‘If they share details of the projects they are involved with on social media, then they are creating a narrative that others can react to – by saying Well done or Good work and sharing this on their own profiles.’

Such publicity is invaluable. Neighbourly is also involved in Together TV, the free-to-air channel which says it looks at ‘the brighter side of life’ – a perfect window for its type of good news stories of communities working together. As well as being a B Corporation – indeed, Neighbourly was one of the first to be assigned this status in the UK – Davies’ brainchild has attracted a heap of awards, including being named as one of Bloomberg Business Innovators two years ago.

However, it’s not about being disruptive any longer, says Davies. Instead, it is about taking the Neighbourly concept to other countries. ‘Issues that exist in the UK exist everywhere,’ says Davies. ‘I think that the Neighbourly model can easily be replicated and scaled elsewhere.’ After all, being a good neighbour isn’t just a British concept