5 tips for starting a community programme in your business

Highshore careers day

Highshore careers day

I’m currently writing our submission for a Sustainable Restaurant Association Food Made Good award in the “Support Local Communities” category. For the submission I’ve had to think about how and why our office catering business got started with our community programmes and what advice I might have to offer other caterers wanting to do the same. To tell you the truth, it all started quite naturally. We didn’t have a real plan or strategy in place – or at least it didn’t feel like it at the time. In retrospect, there was real purpose to what we were doing but maybe if we had known what we do now, we could have saved some hard work and failure.

Now, we have a long-standing relationship with Highshore School, a SEN school in Camberwell, that is the cornerstone of our community work. We have worked with them for over 5 years and in that time we’ve taken on 15 students into either term or full year work experience placements across all our office catering positions, both BOH and FOH. We have hired 2 students into paid employment and donated countless hours of volunteer time and loads of food! We view this programme as our way of promoting hospitality as a viable career choice; raising the profile of the industry while also creating a talent pipeline amidst chronic labour shortages.

Dean giving out awards at Highshore School

Dean giving out awards at Highshore School

Our relationship with Highshore has always been strong and that has helped the programme develop and strengthen from year to year. If you’d like to start something similar in your organisation then check out my 5 tips for starting a community programme from scratch: 

  1. Look at the strategy of your business and pick a cause that aligns with it. When Fooditude first started, the business was donating to the community based on charities that meant something to Dean, our MD. But, as we grew it just didn’t make sense to support those causes because they didn’t fit with what the business was trying to achieve. Our resources are limited and we need to invest in community work that will also benefit the business. That may sound unsympathetic but if you want a community programme to stick it needs to mean something within the context of the business (in our case office catering and hospitality) and the community – rather than the personal causes of the MD or other individuals in the organisation.

  2. Narrow it down and then consult with your employees. So here’s something we didn’t do – but would probably have been good to do at the very beginning – give your employees a say! If you want your staff to get involved then make sure to give them some agency in the choice that you make. You could do this by surveying them about which sustainable development goals they think are most relevant to your business. You could also ask them what kind of volunteering they would be interested in doing from team volunteering to one-off projects or on-going mentorship.

  3. Contact your borough’s business alliance organisation. It seems that every borough has an organisation that links businesses with the local community. We couldn’t have started anything without the help of the Southwark Education Business Alliance and the Big Alliance. These organisations provide the crucial link between you (the business) and the schools or other community organisations you want to work with. They help pick organisations that they think will fit with your business and they also direct help to where it’s needed most. Here are a few other organisations that look similar in other boroughs:

    Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

    Camden

    Westminster

  4. Look for charities that are similar in size to your organisation. When we first started, we were trying to work with national charities like FareShare and they were just too big for an independent office catering company like us. Their time was better spent focussing on working with large supermarkets and high street brands because these businesses could offer better return on investment of their limited resources. Fair enough. Conversely, we also tried to work with much smaller organisations and in those cases we simply didn’t have the resources to dedicate to their cause. Essentially, they wanted more than we could give.

  5. Find an organisation that has a dedicated person to deal with you. One of the reasons our work with Highshore has been so successful is because Nick Clark, their Business & Communications Liaison Officer does such a good job of maintaining our relationship. I think that without him it would be quite hard to coordinate the programme without a lot more work on our side. I’m not saying you should stay away from organisations that don’t have a specific business links role, but I would say that you should manage your expectations if they don’t.

We make cakes for International Book Day every year

We make cakes for International Book Day every year

Have you started a community programme in your company? Do you have any other tips to share? We’d love to hear them.