Despite - or perhaps because of - their success and rapid growth, most hi-tech firms seem to have given little thought to the many ways in which they could help charities and voluntary organisations (VOs).
Often they can help themselves at the same time.
'There's a lot of potential for IT companies to do more for the community,' claims Antony Hunter, head of corporate services at the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF). 'But because a lot of them are fairly new and have grown quickly, they may not have got around to it yet.'
Amanda Bowman, corporate community investment director of Business in the Community (BitC), agrees: 'Many technology companies just haven't got the message about community investment.'
Organisations that work directly with charities are equally unimpressed.
'We racked our brains for some good examples of IT companies which support charities, but we couldn't come up with many,' says Dan McQuillan, an IT specialist at the London Advice Services Alliance, which provides guidance to charities and other VOs.
George Ruddock is co-founder of Recycle-IT, which collects unwanted PCs to pass on to charities and VOs. He adds: 'The industry doesn't do much to support what we're about and we have few donors from the IT world. Maybe they have the attitude that people should have the biggest and best. But if you're a little Baptist church in Somerset, you don't need an all-singing, all-dancing machine.'
Even those companies that are prepared to do their bit could easily be doing more - and at no direct cost to themselves. BitC did some research among user companies with a reputation for do-gooding and found that only 20 per cent had persuaded their IT staff to volunteer to help charities and community projects.
This is a shame, because charities are crying out for help. 'A lot of VOs are like small businesses: they buy a PC, open the box and they're on their own,' Bowman says. So BitC set up a dating agency to match volunteers with IT skills to charities which need them. This could be part-time, at weekends or whenever suits the volunteers and their employers.
Research by BT and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) found that half of VOs had no IT and only 10 per cent had plans to invest in any. There are thousands of registered charities in the UK, so if nearly half of them aren't buying computers - and many of the rest don't know how to use the ones they have - the industry is missing out on a huge potential market. And since IT companies do not have the best of reputations among the general public, there is the opportunity for a bit of image enhancement, too.
'A lot of people think IT companies make too much money,' says Hunter.
'Companies that are growing fast, or which feel people don't like them, find that making a contribution to the local community does a lot for their profile and image. You can increase your competitive advantage by improving people's perceptions of you.'
Charitable giving need not be purely philanthropic. 'The trend is increasingly for companies to say: we'd like to be involved with the community, but we'd like what we do to fit with our business and our objectives,' Hunter adds.
Take BT, the most generous hi-tech company in the UK. In 1997, it gave away £28 million in cash, services and staff resources. Surely no company would spend that kind of money from pure philanthropy - not if it has shareholders to answer to and staff to pay.
'It's not just altruism, it makes good business sense,' explains Stephen Serpell, head of the community partnership programme at BT. 'Having a good name in the community is good for our reputation and our reputation is a key business differentiator for us. We want customers to feel good about buying from us. We want BT to be the sort of company that governments want to have operating in their country or region. And it matters to staff that the company cares about the things they care about.'
More than a third of BT's charity work is directly relevant to its own products, such as supporting Childline, the Samaritans or TV telethons.
And the company is increasingly developing cause-related marketing, which shows the most demonstrable benefits to the bottom line.
A promotion by BT's mobile division, aimed at selling mobile phones to small businesses, offered to give £4 to Whizz-Kidz, a children's mobility charity (note the 'business fit' with mobility) for each connection bought.
Instead of the normal response rate of 1.5 per cent, the mailshot had a 5 per cent response rate.
IBM also has an excellent reputation for charitable work, and its motives are similar to BT's. 'It's enlightened self-interest,' admits Ursula James, community relations manager at IBM. 'You need a healthy society to do business and you need people out there who are IT-literate.'
So IBM concentrates its efforts on improving the level of IT use in the community - especially among schoolchildren and disadvantaged adults, who stand a good chance of being IBM users or customers in future. Half the company's charitable spend goes on donations of its own products.
'It's important to us that people are comfortable with our products, so it's more logical to focus community involvement on products,' says James.
Mobile computing specialist Psion splits its charitable spend between Action Aid, a charity that does a lot of work in South Africa - because several of Psion's founders are South African - and projects in the UK, such as an appeal to buy a magnetic resonance scanner for the Royal Brompton Hospital. 'We need to build links back into our communities, so we're in discussions with schools in north London, where the company is based,' says Peter Bancroft, head of corporate communications at Psion.
The company is keen to provide sponsorship related to its core business - for example, to mobility and communications-related charities. 'The days are gone when companies were expected just to dole out money. It's much more of a two-way street. So there's a range from pure altruism - for example, our South Africa donations, from which we get no tangible return - through relations with our local community, to raising our profile and alignment with the Psion brand.'
There are many potential benefits in charitable giving and voluntary work. Working with the local community enhances a company's reputation as a potential employer and is also good for staff morale, because charity and community work broadens their experience of problem-solving and working with other organisations. 'Employees can learn a lot by working for a different organisation with a different outlook,' says James.
Recipients of donations are usually happy to participate in positive publicity, but some donors have found that 'good news' doesn't sell very well - except to local newspapers, which will print anything if you supply your own picture. 'The PR benefit is there provided you manage it,' says Hunter. 'But if you don't have a policy, you almost certainly won't receive any benefit.'
There can be more tangible benefits in terms of sales and sales leads.
Discounts on hardware and software help lock in the charity for upgrades, consumables and other follow-on sales. Even outright gifts mean more people have experience of a company's products or services. Resellers could also get to meet influential people from central or local government, or from potential customers. Thanks to New Labour, partnerships are flavour of the month, so community tie-ups could give the edge in contract tendering.
There is a right way and a wrong way to give to charity. 'I wouldn't advise anyone to create a big pot of money to dole out in response to unsolicited requests,' Serpell warns. 'Instead, look at the things you are best able to support. Very often, these will be specific issues and local organisations.'
Long-term, sustainable projects and partnerships generally provide better returns than one-off gifts - for the donor and the charity. And it's usually more rewarding to support local charities or projects, unless the donor is a big corporate with a countrywide presence.
'We always work with partners in the community,' says James. 'We do less one-off cash donations, and we're moving towards larger, longer term projects. We're looking for sustainable programmes that will continue to have value after our investment has ceased.'
She also recommends finding 'good fit' charities which have a vision and the practical know-how to make it a reality, plus a commitment to working with you and objectives which match your own.
Then it's a case of discussing with the charity exactly what it needs.
'The key thing is to work with people and understand exactly what they want,' says James. 'IT is a bit of a mystery to a lot of charities and you need to tease out of them what they need. You can't foist equipment onto them.'
Bowman suggests donors set objectives beforehand for what they want to achieve and follow up with ongoing support. This includes keeping an eye on what the charity or VO is doing with the donation, via six-monthly progress reports, for example. CAF maintains a file on most registered charities and can provide a list of which charities operate in a donor's area or might be a good fit with its line of business. It can say how long a charity has been established, how big it is and how much difference a certain size of gift might make to it. If the organisation is not a registered charity, CAF may be able to check it out. It can also advise on questions to ask potential recipients and vet unsolicited begging letters to try to see if they are genuine.
Charitable work need not be a full-time job, especially in a smaller firm, and management and staff should be encouraged to buy into the concept.
But one person should have responsibility to co-ordinate the organisation's overall charity strategy and who is senior enough to make things happen.
The charity budget can either be pre-set and paid into a charitable trust or related to profits, so it is not over-committed if it has a bad financial year. Between half and one per cent of pre-tax profits is a good target.
Combined gifts of money, equipment and expertise are often more valuable than cash and may cost less in pure financial terms. 'We found "money plus" most effective,' Bowman says.
Any charitable donation of £250 or more, by an individual or company, can be made as Gift Aid, enabling the charity to reclaim basic rate income tax. Deeds of covenant are similar, but must run for at least four years.
They can be for fixed amounts or linked to profits. Staff can give tax-free, too - payroll giving schemes such as CAF's Give-As-You-Earn allow them to make tax-free donations. Some employers, including BT, match these pound for pound, and special charity accounts allow staff or companies to set aside tax-free earnings to make individual payments which are below the £250 Gift Aid limit.
Staff can be encouraged to volunteer for charity work by giving them time off in which to do it. It's cheaper than seconding them full-time and many make up the time anyway. Some firms like to make small grants - usually between £50 and £500 - to charities with which their staff work voluntarily.
Unwanted hardware can be a cheap but useful gift. Out-of-date or remaindered PCs can be given to organisations such as Recycle-IT, which check and refurbish old PCs and pass them on to charities, churches and schools, usually making a small charge to cover costs. Pentiums or 486s are preferred.
Look for an organisation that belongs to Bytes Twice, the trade association for charitable recyclers.
Many charities have little or no IT, so they are a good potential market for sales. By offering discounts to charities and schools, resellers can familiarise them with their products. Another gesture of negligible cost, which IBM makes sometimes, is to offer VOs unused places on training courses.
Finally, to maximise publicity benefits, include details of charitable work in magazines, newsletters and annual reports, and send out press releases and pictures. Exotic locations and animals help. Psion declines many of the requests it receives for free Organisers as
raffle and competition prizes. But it will consider applications from organisations that have thought out and presented an idea that fits well with the manufacturer's charitable ethos.
A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE
Wildlife Aid, founded in 1980, operates an animal hospital in Leatherhead, Surrey, to treat injured wild animals and birds from across south-east England. It has two operating theatres, a pathology laboratory and X-ray unit and costs £150,000 a year to run, despite being staffed entirely by volunteers.
Last year, the charity received a new five-PC network from a private donor, supplied through Ideal Hardware, some of whose staff volunteered to help set up the system.
'The network makes our administration and membership database far easier to run and enables us to keep patient records and cross-reference them,' says Simon Cowell, co-founder of Wildlife Aid. 'It has saved us copious amounts of time and because of this equipment we are 30 per cent more efficient.'
Cowell believes it is very important to have a good relationship with donors. 'I don't think they're looking for advantages, but I try to give them some payback because I think it's important,' he says. 'I never wait for them to check that we're doing something worthwhile with their donations. Instead, I prove it to them first.'
But a lot more help is needed, not least from the IT sector. Cowell estimates that the National Lottery has taken 40 per cent of the charity's donation income, and is anxious to find more corporate sponsors. Often, schoolchildren raise more money for Wildlife Aid than business donors.
'It's very rare to find computer companies that are prepared to help us,' Cowell concludes.
HOW TO GIVE WITHOUT IT HURTING
- Implement a strategy and support specific issues or local projects
- Focus on long-term, sustainable projects and partnerships
- Designate one person to co-ordinate your charity strategy and arrange management and staff buy-in
- Combined gifts of money, equipment and expertise are the most valuable
- Aim to give a realistic amount, such as half to one per cent of pre-tax profit
- Cheat the taxman by covenanting donations or making them as Gift Aid
- Encourage staff giving through payroll-based schemes or special charity accounts
- Encourage staff to volunteer for charity work and give them time off
- Recycle old kit
- Offer discounts to charities and schools
- Offer unused places on training courses to VOs
- Maximise the publicity benefits
WHAT'S IN IT FOR YOU?
- Staff motivation and development, through the feel-good factor and broadened experience
- Recruitment, through your enhanced reputation and a bigger skills pool
- Good publicity
- Promotion of future sales through discounted sales and gifts to voluntary organisations
- Making contacts in politics or with potential customers
- Partnerships can help with tendering
- The satisfaction of helping those less fortunate than you.
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