Tuesday, 13 September 2005

Charity & Philanthropy in Business.

It’s about give, and take, and everything in between….

From whales and trees, to elephants and the ozone layer, from the poor, the starving, and diseased, to those afflicted by disasters, every day, we are confronted with a multitude of causes, all competing for our money, our time, and our support.

Mark Twain, a nineteenth century American writer, once mused, “What do you call love, hate, charity, revenge, humanity, magnanimity, forgiveness? Different results of the one master impulse: the necessity of securing one's self-approval”.This rather cynical view is confirmed when you appreciate the fact that rather than focussing on the cause, most of the ‘sales pitches’ received from charities nowadays seem to focus on what YOU can get back from your involvement, and whether its ‘spin’, ‘brand association’, or inclusion in some glossy brochure, there is always a way they can persuade you that your receiving an excellent ROI (return on investment) for your participation.

While one has to always consider the economic facts of business, and the simple reality that very few have the resource to be truly ‘philanthropists’, I’m disturbed by the fact that the balance of ‘PR versus Cause’ has changed, meaning the focus is now on ‘What can I get back?’ and less ‘This is a great cause and if we can get something back, so much the better’.

It’s no secret that charitable associations can be leveraged by business to promote a good impression, and provide a nice ‘fluffy’ enclosure to the corporate world. Public companies have been doing it for sometime, often under the guise of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). A quick look at the annual reports of any major firm will reveal a variety of relevant causes being supported, promoted.

Call me a cynic, but planting trees and soaping-down-an-albatross isn’t going to make oil extraction any less damaging to the environment… and building a couple of schools in remote African villages surely isn’t going to stop the thousands of people exploited by the diamond industry worldwide?

Many will, in this sense, remember a comment Henry Ford made, "Capital punishment is as fundamentally wrong as a cure for crime as charity is wrong as a cure for poverty."

Then, on the flipside, you have the ‘fire and forget’ approach, which many small businesses are party to, where, a simple process is followed…..

1. Charitable request received
2. Business owner notified
3. Cheque posted
4. Warm-Fuzzy-Feeling attained (usually short-lived)

NOTE: This warm-fuzzy-feeling is often combined with the sudden need to inform all and sundry that you are now the sort of person who Selflessly, and altruistically supports the well-being of or helps those in/with/affected by

Great!!! Or is it??

While cold-hard-cash is an essential part of the charity phenomenon, often, the products, services and contacts of your firm could provide even more benefit! For example, you could mailshot your database to raise funds, perhaps your company could provide accounting, or design services? Or provide products/services as an incentive for the charity’s other donors?

HOWEVER, if cold hard cash IS the best option for you, remember that the friendly folks in Westminster have created numerous ‘vehicles of giving’ making your donations more ‘efficient’ (ie: the charity gets more bang for your buck). These vehicles include…. Multi-funds, trusts, gift-aid, relief funds, incentives, and more! It’s often advisable to talk to your own accountants and advisors who (for a fee) will tell you what the most efficient way is to operate. A few firms I work with, for example, have set up their own charitable director’s trusts, allowing gifts to be made, annually, to charities, from the gains of the trust, without affecting the principal amount. On smaller scales, businesses may be able to even select a charity, and using gift-aid, provide a means for their employees to donate.

Something is, though, missing…

Jack London, one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth century, once said, “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”

Aside from being a somewhat poignant statement, if you read into it a bit more, you can see, clearly, that acts of kindness like that can only be performed with resource (the bone) and PASSION ABOUT THE CAUSE (the urge to share your own resource, even when you could utilise yourself).

This passion is, unfortunately, something which – nowadays – is missing from charitable engagements. I rarely see business owners, or those involved in charity through business, truly engaged by the causes they support, or truly enthusiastic about them. Given the resources businesses have at their disposal, from money, to contacts, to employees, and more – this is rather sad.

In the rare situations where businesses are passionate, however, the results are often spectacular, with the drive being disseminated throughout the firm, raising the interest, motivation and support of employees, stakeholders, partners, suppliers, and even customers – meaning that some tiny businesses are able to raise thousands of pounds, and have a real sense of achievement throughout their organizations, whereas many larger firms, to whom charity is a ‘pass the bucket around the call-centre’ affair, seem to raise less in donations than they spend on tippex™ in an average month….

Charity shouldn’t just be the prevail of bored Cheshire housewives at their weekly round-table meetings it should be something we all do, and do with some consideration!

So, please, don’t forget charities – the world is a pretty needy place nowadays, and from conservation, to humanitarian and social causes, there are many people out there noble enough to do something about it – they deserve our support, and who better than businesses to give it.

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Thursday, 8 September 2005

The shocking truth about writing!

I am shocked, nowadays, about how lacking most business communications are in any more eloquence than is necessary to ‘get to the point’. Whether you consider brochures and marketing materials, to advertising, letters and more, our ability to creatively verbalise ourselves is falling prey to a society becoming geared for speed.

People fail to consider the fact that you still need to ‘woo’ the recipient of any outgoing materials, whether your contacting existing clients, looking for new ones, talking to your suppliers, or even sending messages to your staff. A well structured, well written piece of text says more about the sender than even the glossiest or most ‘blinged up’ piece of card can ever do.Would the employees of “first advice”, for example, have been just as disgruntled if they had been fired with a well written letter explaining the circumstances, reasons, and course of action? Rather than a text message in the morning saying, “All staff who are being retained will be contacted today. If you have not been spoken to you are therefore being made redundant with immediate effect”.

Even on a personal level, not so long ago, we were in an era where staying in touch was an art form, as lovingly crafted, handwritten letters winged their way to eager recipients, who read, understood, thought, and responded. It was an environment where a love-letter was an elaborate essay of the soul, rather than a quick 'WNT 2 SHAG? X' texted at 2.30am from a kebab shop in Fallowfield.

My worst fear is that this is change is inevitable, as even the most thick-skinned communications purist now finds themselves impatiently expecting near-instantaneous responses to their various typed excretions (perhaps the most appropriate word to describe the level of most messages people send nowadays), the worst culprits often making follow-up calls to enquire whether you got their fax/sms/email/IM, typically as you were just in the process of ham-fisting a reply.

And what future for our language skills as (considering my own inbox) vowels are mstly rmvd frm what we say, and any semblance of emotive speech is replaced with 'quirky' smilies representing a dishearteningly wide gamut of human expressions. Will it be long before newspapers and journals are written in this nu-shorthand? (though many would argue this would be an improvement on today’s tabloid nonsense).

The arts may also suffer at this hand, as creative-writing, poetry and other such wordplay, fall by the wayside, with media and consumer taking interest in more 'visual' artforms. This I would consider a tragedy, as more than most things, words can inspire and engage (as characters like Churchill and Gandhi have proven in speech, and Shakespeare in creative-prose).

I think a lot of the blame lies here with the media (published and broadcast) who, rather than delivering any real substance, choose to package over-commercialised trash as “content”, before throwing it guns blazing at a tabloid audience, giving them something to talk about as they sip VK and Smirnoff ice in “trendy” bars. Could this dumbing down have spilt over into music too? How rare is it nowadays to hear a song where the lyrics are truly inspiring, rather than being pop-tat with words such as “baby”, “yeah”, “mofo” and “sh*t” used to pad-out the three and a half minutes the artist is contracted to fill (may I use the Fast Food Rockers as a casing point to illustrate, in the clearest manner possible, how lyrics have been dumbed down! And who can forget the 2Unlimited “classic” no-no-nono-no-no-nono-nono-no-no there’s no liiimits!…. classy eh?)

The written word is a hugely accessible creative medium which everyone can use to express themselves. And with a little effort, we can say a lot more, taking the skill of creative writing away from the PR's and journalists (where, ironically, it rarely is demonstrated), placing it back into broader society where it belongs.

By being more thoughtful about what we say, and taking time to think and respond, we can be more productive and creative, communicate better and perhaps even improve the relationships we have with those around us.

If this fluffy altruistic goodness isn’t exciting you, then simply consider the money you’ll save on marketing fees if you write your promotional copy yourself!

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The reality of security to small & medium enterprise.

“If only you knew some of the things I’ve seen” said my friend, with twenty tough years in intelligence services under his belt, “the hairs on your neck would stand on end”.

For a long time, words like “espionage”, and “leaks” were attributed to the large firms of the world, where billions of dollars were at stake. In those days, though, the technology and skills NEEDED to engage in such activities were much more esoteric and, perhaps more importantly, extremely expensive. Nowadays, though, the technology and skills needed to effect such intrusive and damaging acts are far more accessible, being almost “off the shelf!”.

“But we’re small businesses, why should I worry about things like this?” I hear you cry. To a degree, yes, your right, small & medium enterprise have fewer exposures in this regard, BUT, consider a couple of scenarios.Scenario1: A small recruitment company, employing 5-10people, one of the team gets fired, before they leave, they download a copy of the company database onto a CD or their laptop, and leave. Quickly they start their own agency, undercutting their employer, with a complete record of clients, contacts, and candidates.

Scenario 2: Key team member leaves from an import & distribution company, taking supplier, customer and chain contacts, starting his own competing firm. The employer lost 40% of his turnover that year.

Scenario 3: Man phones a law firm, posing as ‘tech support’ for an IT company, asks a few key questions to the senior partner (whose laptop gets stolen that evening). Using the answers for the key questions, information is quickly extracted from laptop, and sensitive case information is leaked, damaging a case, and the firm’s reputation.
Scenario 4: A small fashion retailer, employing 8 people. Employee perceived themselves as being treated badly by team & boss (in fact, they weren’t). They made the decision to quit, but before doing so, managed to log into the till-system computer (using the ‘standard’ password which the firm issued) and changed a lot of stock and order levels… The result? The retailer had a three month period of poor stocking!

These scenarios are not hypothetical, they have actually happened, and that’s just the tip of the ice-berg. None of these firms were large, and because of that, they found it exceedingly tough to cope with the financial and other repercussions of these actions.

Firms nowadays MUST be more aware of these situations, and need to take action to ensure they are protected.

Data Security:
Perhaps most important is securing key company data. It’s all well and good having your server locked in a safe BUT remember, it’s probably accessible over your network, meaning data can be easily retrieved. Are your backups encrypted? Do all your staff workstations have the ability to burn cd’s and so forth? WHO has access to key company data, and are measures in place to monitor/control access? What can/can’t people email out from your company? The answers to all these questions could expose potential holes in your management security policy which could, ultimately, have adverse affects on your organisation. Remember, none of the measures needed to correct these holes need be expensive!

Encryption (the process by which data is ‘scrambled’, accessible only by password) is an extremely effective way of protecting it.

Personal Security:
In context, we are not looking at PHYSICAL security (ie: a team of bouncers), but more at awareness of risk, and awareness of how to minimise it!

Password & PIN Policy:
I know it can be touch nowadays to remember all the various passwords and pin numbers we have to and so, the tendency is to have a couple of “standard” pins, maybe using our phone numbers, or birthdates of friends/family, and passwords comprising places, people, phrases that are important to us. Difficult as it may be, you should ensure passwords are RANDOM (combinations of letters, numbers, without meaning, 6 characters or more), and pin numbers etc are equally random. This makes them near impossible to crack, and many programs etc are available to help you store and organise them, even on your phone.

Example: An off-the-shelf software package will crack an ‘average’ laptop password in a few hours, a STRONG password (more than 6 characters, letters, numbers, and symbols) will take many YEARS to crack. Remember, stolen computers account for a fair degree of identity & corporate fraud.

Social Engineering:
This is, perhaps, one of the most vicious and least understood methods of espionage. Using tools like google, and other search systems, it is now incredibly easy to find out a lot about a person, who they are, where they live, their friends, where they go out, clubs & societies they are members of, things which are important to them, family information, everything! Using this info, you can quickly build a picture of someone, and therefore statistically improve your chances of guessing passwords, passphrases, or, more devastatingly, pass yourself off as THEM or a relative, friend etc. This technique, called “social engineering” has been seen commonly in the states, where people approach companies posing as friends or family of a key person, or even phone up posing as ‘tech support’ etc, asking questions such as ‘can you confirm your system password for maintenance?’ or ‘we’ve been alerted to a virus on your system, please can you supply XYZ information?’. The majority of people, who are relatively trusting, would not hesitate to assist these helpful people… remember though, these are the techniques fraudsters will use to extract the information they need!

Make sure you and your staff are wary to this, with policies on what people can and cannot give out, and make sure your aware of the policies of those companies and organisations you work with! What will/wont they ask for on the phone! On a personal level, be careful what information you do/don’t put on the web, remember, if its on there, chances are, search engines will pick it up.

Example: I remember clearly the case of a senior company executive for a US biotech firm, whose personal details emerged on the web… where from? A running club he was a member of, and was advertising for people to go on a trip! The result? His residence was vandalised and his car attacked by protesters……

Really, the issues we’ve covered above are only the tip of a proverbial ice-berg on security, but the message is clear, to be aware of your exposures, minimise them, and then sit back, and relax with your martini, shaken, not stirred.

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