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Royal Treatment for Australia’s Social Sector

22 April 2015 at 11:40 am
Lina Caneva
Prominent royal adviser in the UK and international CSR campaigner Dame Julia Cleverdon had a whirlwind trip to Australia recently, advocating for greater leadership and community engagement on the part of business. Journalist Nadia Boyce caught up with her during her visit.

Lina Caneva | 22 April 2015 at 11:40 am


Royal Treatment for Australia’s Social Sector
22 April 2015 at 11:40 am

Prominent royal adviser in the UK and international CSR campaigner Dame Julia Cleverdon had a whirlwind trip to Australia recently, advocating for greater leadership and community engagement on the part of business. Journalist Nadia Boyce caught up with her during her visit. 

In Australia as a guest of The Prince's Charities Australia, Dame Cleverdon met with philanthropists, businesses and charitable organisations and attended Melbourne’s Shared Value Forum, where she sat down to talk with Pro Bono Australia News in the midst of her frenetic schedule.

Dame Cleverdon is Vice President of Business in the Community, the pre-eminent UK responsible business body. The organisation sits within The Prince’s Charities, a group of Not for Profit organisations of which HRH The Prince of Wales is President.

She ended her acclaimed 16-year stint as Chief Executive of the Business in the Community in 2008 – at which point she assumed an ambassadorial role, acting as Special Adviser to Prince Charles’ The Prince’s Charities.

Listed by The Times as one of the 50 most influential women in Britain, there can be no mistaking that Dame Cleverdon is a powerhouse in her field – with a personality to match. At the Forum, she had audiences in raptures, serving fast quips and quirky analogies.

Renowned for her passionate campaigning, she did everything you would expect of a Dame – presenting herself with grace and diplomacy but also with a warmth and intensity where one gets the sense she is  deeply invested in her work.

Indeed, in conversation Dame Cleverdon frequently draws on her own memories, emotions and experiences, particularly those gained during her time spent in some of the UK’s most disadvantaged communities.

Candid and at times delightfully tongue-in-cheek, she shared with Pro Bono Australia News her thoughts on how Australian companies are faring, the power of community engagement and how businesses have “lost the plot” – and what she hopes they will do about it.

Dame Cleverdon (second left) had a jam-packed trip, including an appearance at the 2015 Shared Value Forum. 

Localising Responsible Business

One cannot doubt that business is where Dame Cleverdon’s passions lie – not five minutes into the meeting, she is ebulliently declaring her love for all things enterprising.

“I adore business,” she professes. “I love the crackle of business, I adore business people and what they can do and I think the best of them are absolutely the most entrepreneurial drivers of everything, I love it!

“I’m perfectly prepared to be interested and fascinated about what Unilever are doing about X and what GSK are doing about Y, when you are dealing with the really massive problems of society.”

Yet it is only in the time since she has stepped down from the top job, she says, that she has realised the true impact of being on the ground, and the role that business can play at a local scale in transforming the lives of everyday people. After stepping down, the Prince of Wales appointed her to an ambassadorial role, working closely with five of the UK’s toughest and most deprived communities.

“I spent a lot of time, after running Business In The Community – with 815 member companies, lots of leaders and PR, all of it – actually just walking the streets, and in a way, I’d have been a much better Business in the Community executive if I’d done that before,” she says.

“It isn’t before you get very local that you understand the issues are about unconnected communities with minimal power, and with minimal connections, [connecting] with those who could make the difference for them…For me its about how you get those connections into unconnected communities and people.”

Earlier in the day, Dame Cleverdon had recounted to the audience her experience of accompanying Heineken’s UK CEO to a homeless shelter, where he locked eyes with its tenants suffering from alcoholism – in large part due to the availability of double-strength lager sold by that very company. Following the visit, the product was pulled from the shelves.

It is that kind of impact, Dame Cleverdon says, that shared value thinking can have at community level.

“I’m interested in how Shared Value language is translated at a very local level. What IS the relationship between a business and its community?

“It’s all about labels and language. Shared Value is actually about what the common purpose of business is.

“I think we’ve seen, as everybody has, waves of, ‘no, this is actually about philanthropy’ and ‘no, this is actually about community investment.’ In the end, it’s about what is the relationship between business and the society.

“I think now – and it may be a result of poor behaviour of some businesses, who I think have lost the plot around what the hell they were there for – we’re now having to reimagine…what is the role of business, and what is its positive impact on society?

“[In Shared Value] there’s obviously a very specific bit about how you can develop new products and services out of which you make a profit and which will meet community need.

“I think that each individual business has a particular, skill, ability, knowledge and drive – and the real issue is, can you harness that skill and knowledge to make a strong sustainable business, and to build a community through strong impact?

“The example I always love is about getting a business to do what only that business can do…Finding what it is that business can make the most difference on is part of what this is all about.”

Setting an Example

Despite her passion for business, Dame Cleverdon is also sharply critical and unfettered in her criticisms of its shortcomings. She’s emphatic that Government intervention is not the answer, insisting that it only “legislate for the laggards”. How exactly we are to empower more business leaders to follow the strong example set by a select few remains to be seen.

“It’s a very interesting double bind problem,” she concedes. “The fact that some of business lost the plot, lost the confidence, and lost the trust, means that the kneejerk reaction is that we’ve got to legislate them: ‘they absolutely can’t be allowed to cross the road unless we set out which footprints they will take’.

“That will not get the best – it never gets the best – from anybody. The decision you take yourself is always the one you’re most highly motivated to make work. Now what we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to find the ways in which business rebuilds trust in society by illustrating what it can do to help make the world a better place.”

“There are great business leaders and the danger is that we put everybody into the same box.

“If I was thinking of the business leaders that I admire and believe in,  that I will talk up and nobody will budge me…[CEO] Paul Polman of Unilever has a vision of life – he has transformed how Unilever has seen itself. Andrew Witty of GSK …had a very tough time, but actually, the way in which he has shaped that business…that’s great stuff.

“There are other great business leaders, and I can rattle them off, and you can too in Australia. The issue is can you get the press and the media to be positive about great things that businesses are doing, or are they now so clear that they can’t be trusted, that they never catch them doing it right. And I think that’s where we’ve got to change that dynamic and the media has a very important role to play.

“I suspect the Australian media are tougher on business leaders than we are in the UK. I think you catch them doing it wrong much more than you catch them doing it right.”

Dame Cleverdon is, on the whole, fairly complimentary of local efforts.  

“I never think Australia can learn anything from the UK. We have a very different history and background,” she says.  

“Australia is absolutely fantastic in what it’s building in my book…I think if anything, I’m always interested and I’ve been to Australia every year for the past 10 years. I’m always learning things, I’m always picking up things that you’re doing infinitely better than we are.

“I think [Australia’s] corporates don’t particularly work collaboratively together, whereas I think in the UK, we’re a much smaller island, we’ve had some very big problems- we were ahead of the world in our problems.

“If you think about those riots in the eighties, it was five times more likely that young black teenagers would be unemployed in the UK in the 1980s than young white [teenagers]. That faced us into the wind on some real issues about our diversity and our future on a pretty crowded island.

“Australia is in a completely different space. What the Melbourne corporates do and what the Sydney corporates do and what the Perth corporates do – It’s quite difficult to pull an Australia-wide activity together.

“Collaborative action by companies, on issues and places, I look forward to seeing how that’s going to work, and I do hope the Prince’s Charities can play a bit of a swap-shopping role on that.

“…for Australia, where you are far more wide-flung than we are, that must also be a part of the issue. That’s why those programs who have a national footprint must be so important in what they can do to engage and connect better.”

A Link in the Chain

Dame Cleverdon would like to see the process of business forging community connections stretch across multiple sectors.

“I am wildly over passionate about this,” she laughs. “At a very, very local level.  

“I think the key to it is sometimes absolute disaster. When a community is on its beam edge, sometimes that’s when you can move in and say, ‘right, come on, where’s the vision?’”

Dame Cleverdon recounts the change in the UK town of Burnley, where she saw drastic change where Business in the Community paired with other sectors to address youth offending.

“I remember in Burnley, one of the most important things we did was to say to the Police, ‘have you got the names of the 100 naughtiest boys in Burnley? Could we possibly send them away for ten days…with young police community support leaders and I’ve got the Army to send us 10 young leaders.’

“And that group, with some business people and the Prince’s Trust, produced a situation where of the 100 naughty boys, 85 per cent did not re-offend again. It’s not rocket science.

“While they were all on the course, burglary in Burnley fell like a stone because they weren’t there knocking off things! But it also changed the dynamic between the police, the army and the youth services. Getting people to work together in unusual partnerships is the thing in my experience that makes the most difference.”

The push for greater cross-sectoral collaboration could and should come, at least in part, from the private sector, Dame Cleverdon maintains.

“The business sector, who in general will too frequently say to me, ‘oh god, I’m not going to go and sit on that local authority thing, it’s jungle warfare without the ropes, I can’t cope with all of that!’ – they’ve got to break through that and they’ve got to work with leaders of other sectors to find out what’s in the best interests of our community.

“The vision can come from a great community, it can come from great business leaders, and occasionally it can come from great local authorities.

“But my experience is that it doesn’t come unless you really get all three sectors sharing together, the vision.”

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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