Saturday, 26 July 2008

A billion reasons to listen

Ok, I know this post is a couple of few months late but good things come to those who wait! Since my last blog, life in my day job running has been pretty hectic. We got involved in the Bristol Design Festival and ended up running a hugely successful Dragons' Den-style competition called The Pitch. More about that another time.

In this post I fulfil my promise of outlining my experiences at Good Deals, the UK's first conference focusing on financial investment in social enterprises.

The highlight by far was the keynote address by entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter. It's not often I'm in the presence of someone who's worth £1.05bn so I made sure I paid attention!

Listening to his speech, I was struck that the 47-year-old Scot doesn't look like someone who's worth an amount of money I can't even imagine; he's wasn't dripping in bling, he didn't ooze arrogance and he wasn't tracked by a string of staff tending to his every need.

That's not saying he's not hugely confident and he must have a strong element of ruthlessness to reach the sort of heights that he has but despite all that his main passion in life is clear; he wants to give his money away.

He is already well on the way to doing it. Among the millions donated through the Hunter Foundation he set up with his wife in 1998 are £6m to Band Aid, £1m to Make Poverty History and £1m to Children in Need.

All very impressive but that's easy to do you may say for a man who founded the Sports Division chain and sold it on for £290m. However, entrepreneurs running businesses of all sizes have a lot to learn from Sir Tom.

He believes that those who make money have a duty to give something back. The words of Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and a trustee of the Hunter Foundation, were key in sparking him into action. "If you're lucky enough to amass a great wealth, to die with it is a great waste," he told him.

Philantrophy in some circles is a dirty word - it's seen as the super rich writing cheques which while they benefit the causes are really aimed at boosting the public profile of the donor.
Sir Tom is different. He views his giving like a business transaction.

"Treat every philantrophic investment as you would a business investment", he explains. In business you want a return on investment so why should the same not be true for charitable donations?

If your only contact with a cause, campaign or scheme is handing over a cheque how do you know whether it has done any good? How do you know whether the cash has been used wisely and invested where it should be?

Leverage your money, Sir Tom advises. He explains that he takes the flack if an initiative he sets up fails but if it works, it's up to local authorities to take it on. "We are no substitute to the taxpayer," he proclaims.

Sir Tom also believes that it's vitally important key performance indicators are set for any community giving an entrepreneur undertakes. If it's not working, stop, he stresses; there are plenty of other good places where your money could be going.

Finally, one of the billionaire's biggest bugbears is there is not enough collaboration going on. "In the third sector, there are lots of people doing the same thing. In the traditional business world, if that was happening, we'd consolidate it and make sure everyone who should be is benefiting."

A hugely inspirational speech from an hugely inspirational man. Yes, he can afford to say it, of course he can, but put that out of your mind. There are immense problems in local communities all around the UK that aren't being solved using traditional charitable or public sector techniques.

Entrepreneurs hold the answer by approaching the issues with a business-like attitude. Being ruthless enough to halt projects when they're not working, setting people difficult targets and investing money where it should be invested will go a long way to overcoming society's ills.

So next time you write a cheque for the local church appeal or to fund a Scout group's new minibus, think about how you could actually do more. How could you get involved directly so you know exactly where the money's going and who it's helping. If it's not finance you provide, what about giving your time, your contacts, your experience?

You may not have billions to give away like Sir Tom but if every entrepreneur gave something, the world would certainly be a better place.

No comments: