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Will SMEs’ altruism continue post-Covid?

Smaller businesses around the UK have supported their local communities in myriad ways during the Covid crisis – and their altruistic contributions haven’t gone unnoticed by consumers

A senior woman working on a local market stall selling homemade jam serves a customer.

It’s often said that SMEs are the heartbeat of their local communities. Despite the problems that have blighted much of the business world over the past 16 months, many smaller firms in the UK have proved this by going the extra mile to support key workers and help the most vulnerable members of society during the pandemic.

The sector broke records in giving back to communities in 2020, according to a report compiled in March 2021 by Oxford Economics and Intuit QuickBooks. In total, the nation’s SMEs donated more than £6bn in cash and gifts in kind to a range of good causes. A further £11.4bn-worth of volunteering time was distributed among local schools and charities such as those delivering donated food to elderly and disabled people isolating in their homes. 

With 43% of consumers saying that they are more likely to shop locally than was the case before March 2020, the report’s authors believe that the image of small businesses and their value to communities has improved sharply. 

Being able to make a practical contribution to the unfolding health crisis lifted the spirits of the entire 30-strong workforce and made us feel purposeful

Tellingly, it was philanthropy, rather than the desire to look good, that drove many SMEs to help out when the crisis was at its height. The number one motivation they cited to the researchers was the desire to “give back to society”, particularly when it came to helping vulnerable people living alone during the lockdowns. Next came the ambition to support the “causes we feel passionate about”, followed by helping to “develop the local community”. Many business owners also reported that they had responded to their employees, who’d urged them to take action.

Bottling the feelgood factor

While many independent firms have provided free food, drink and accommodation to NHS staff and other key workers, others have adapted their production lines to provide vital supplies. Spurred on by the nationwide shortage of hand sanitisers in the early days of the pandemic, Ian McCulloch, co-founder and director of Silent Pool Gin, resolved to put the by-products of gin distilling – which would normally end up in an anaerobic digester – to good use.

Over the past 16 months, he and his team have distributed more than 80,000 free bottles of 88%-proof sanitiser to front-line NHS workers, police officers, homeless charities, GP surgeries and vulnerable people local to the business, which is based in the rural Surrey village of Albury, who have been unable to visit a supermarket or shop online.

“Being able to make a practical contribution to the unfolding health crisis lifted the spirits of the entire 30-strong workforce and made us feel purposeful, both as a team and a business,” McCulloch says. “Knowing that we were doing something positive gave us a tremendous lift when the Covid news was really bad. It helped to reinforce the fact that, far from being a faceless team of distillers based in a factory somewhere, we live, work and shop in this community.”

Although the urge to support local communities is clearly a prime motivation for SMEs, ensuring that businesses remain viable for the long term is, understandably, an important consideration too. Having hit on a successful brand extension almost by chance, Silent Pool Gin will continue producing sanitiser for as long as there is a market, but it will be running its sideline on a commercial basis from now on.

Printing a way out of the crisis

In the early days of the pandemic, various items of personal protective equipment, like hand sanitisers, were in desperately short supply. Having purchased a 3D printer in 2019 to produce electronic components, Advanced Fibreoptic Engineering was well placed to help the NHS.

“When our printer supplier created a global website at the start of last year to help deliver 3D printed visors to health professionals around the world, we were really keen to get involved,” says Mark Johnson, commercial director at the firm, which is based near RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

He recalls that every member of the company’s 50-strong workforce rose to the challenge of producing visor frames. “All of us like to feel that our work has meaning. There was clearly a strong sense of pride attached to helping the health service – particularly so for our engineers, whose expertise proved invaluable.”

Johnson adds that the fact that “all of us helped out in a crisis” has unified the team and is likely to have made the company a more attractive employer, especially among younger jobseekers. 

If the findings of the consumer survey by Oxford Economics and Intuit are anything to go by, the millions of people who have come to rely on local businesses during the pandemic will carry on patronising them whenever possible. But will the altruism that so many SMEs have shown in the crisis also continue?

According to Alan Thomas, UK CEO at online insurance broker Simply Business, the desire among smaller firms to give back to communities is here to stay – but it’s a two-way street. 

“Covid is set to cost the country’s SMEs £126.6bn in total. While this is a huge blow to the economy, it will have an even greater impact on the people behind these firms: the owners, who have families, livelihoods and dreams to protect,” he says. “It’s time for all of us to give back to the sector that did so much to support us last year.”