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Corporate Social Responsibility

The first time I ever met Simon was on the rooftop of a three storey car park overlooking the Nicholson street Mall in Footscray. With a proud smile he told me ‘Footscray is the new Richmond!’ Back then he was the Senior Planner responsible for overseeing the management of the Footscray TOD for Maribyrnong Council whilst I was the urban designer putting together a bid to try and get a project for my then employer. Today, Simon still works for the City of Maribyrnong, however in a different role as the Place Manager for Footscray. When I caught up with him recently he told me about his project - he was trying to get businesses in Footscray to talk to each other by volunteering their time and or money towards a charity function for the most marginalised in Footscray. As I spent time with Simon and his team from the City of Maribyrnong and the Assertive Outreach program of the Western Region Health Centre, the only question that went through my mind was ‘why would anyone volunteer their time and money towards such a cause?’
There are a number of social and moral reasons why individuals volunteer their time and money towards charitable causes, but do those same reasons motivate corporations towards social responsibility. We live in a society where we want as much bang as we can get for our buck as possible, hence the notion of value is critical; ‘how we spend our money is directly defined by the perceived worth of what we receive in return.’[1] How does a corporation decide the perceived worth of the return when it is providing a service on voluntary grounds? To fully comprehend such a decision we need to define the concept ‘value.’
In economic terms ‘Value’ can be broken down into two important concepts ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI) and ‘Utility.’
ROI = (Gain from investment - Cost of investment) / Cost of investment [2]

Utility: An economic term referring to the total satisfaction received from consuming a good or service[3]

Hence to put it into simple terms ROI is a measure of economic value whilst utility is a measure of happiness[4]; when put together they determine the total value added to any venture. Therefore the obvious question is – what value is there for a corporation to invest time and money for this particular social cause?
Soon after I called Simon, he invited me to have coffee with the organising committee from the City of Maribyrnong and the Western Region Health Centre to get a more in depth understanding of what they hoped to achieve from this charity function. The steering committee were clear on their objectives, they wanted businesses in Footscray to be aware of each other and their community and give back to the most marginalised within their community. The event started 6 years ago with one business on board and today has grown to thirteen businesses voluntarily contributing their time and money. Back in those days the organising team had to go from door to door trying to get some support, today by sheer word of mouth there is sufficient interest being generated that the event is growing. The organising committee were quick to point out that despite any issues individual businesses have with the council, they were still very keen to get involved. This is because of the independence of the committee from any council politics and a direct correlation between the money and time spent and the service provided.
All together the function caters for up to 350 members of the community that are selected by the Western Region Health centre. The Assertive Outreach program targets the most venerable in society and works with them to address the multitude of social issues from homelessness, drug abuse, family abuse, unemployment etc. Every individual deserves to have something to look forward to during the festive season and a function such as this that brings individuals of different strata in society together is likely to benefit everyone in society. The function creates no pressure and expectations or any conations of pity, but rather aims to engender all with a greater sense of value in society. This vision in conjunction with the work done by the Western Region Health Centre where individual cases are followed through pre and post this function means there is continuity in trying to find workable solutions to the economic and social issues identified. This is only the second time the committee has opened its door to external eyes. There is a strict consensus that this event not be open to the general public and not be overtaken by personal motives. There is a sense of genuinely wanting to do something good for some of the more marginalised, hence a considerable amount of effort is being placed on keeping the event low key and not alienating anyone. Last year they introduced the plaque, which was given to each business as a small token of appreciation and to allow the wider society an opportunity to recognise the hard work being conducted.
In the last few years we have seen a number of critical development projects, independent of the steering committee gain traction within Footscray. The first was the construction of a seven storey residential tower at 55 Hopkins Street. This is the first significant residential development adjoining Footscray station, with funding generated through private hands. The second is the redevelopment of Footscray station in conjunction with the regional rail project. Stage one of this project included a new pedestrian bridge over the station. Stage two currently under construction is of a new streetscape and transportation infrastructure. Stage three is currently under consultation. In connection with this, the state government is investing a significant amount of money in the redevelopment of state land along McNab Avenue and Napier Street adjoining Footscray station. All these projects aim to make Footscray the heart of regeneration in the inner west.

The Footscray Activities Area’s aims are[5]:
  • Attract new employers, workers, residents, students and visitors to central Footscray to increase vibrancy and activity
  • Create market conditions to help make development more feasible in Footscray Activities Area, build market confidence and catalyse further private investment
  • Unlock land value by developing surplus vacant government land in the heart of the Footscray Activities Area and signify Footscray’s repositioning
  • Improve connections between the station precinct in the heart of the Footscray Activities Area and the adjacent civic precinct, Victoria University and the core retail area.
  • The Footscray vision says that the Footscray of 2030 is safe, artsy, edgy, affordable, regional, diverse/mixed and multicultural.
  • The State Government and Maribyrnong City Council are aiming to attract the private sector to invest in Footscray. This in turn will help to better service the regional and the local communities by attracting people to the area to live, work, learn & socialise.
  • It is envisaged that the Footscray of 2030 will have more employment, more diverse housing, more education, improved transport access and a rich array of entertainment activities, particularly at night.  A variety of retail opportunities and a diversity of shopping experiences are also anticipated.
  • The State Government and Maribyrnong City Council are working with the private sector to alert investors to Footscray's great strengths and opportunities
With all of this money floating around and the new and exciting times ahead for Footscray one cannot help but be some what cynical of the motives of corporations volunteering their time in this project. However in all fairness I have not met any of them and I have evaluated this purely on my biased notions (I aim to address this over the next few posts) One key question to consider is – are the volunteers more concerned with getting a foothold in Footscray or helping marginal groups or both?
Ultimately no regeneration in Footscray can occur without addressing the social and cultural issues prevalent in the community. The challenge for Footscray is to move towards regeneration without further marginalising individuals or pushing them further to the outskirts of society. For regeneration to be successful and prolonged, businesses need to talk to each other and new employment opportunities need to be created? For the Footscray activities area to come to fruition the social context needs to become one which will attract employment and people.
So now that we have a greater understanding what is at stake we can attempt to work out the value of the philanthropy. It would be reasonably safe to say the ROI for most businesses in the short to medium term will be close to nil; however it gets more interesting when we consider potential longer term implications and the potential utility for the businesses.

This is part 1 of a series where I will be further exploring and questioning these concepts. I have been invited as a guest to document the event, where I will get an opportunity to talk to volunteers and participants – stay tuned for the next post.


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