A decade ago most Irish business leaders would have described corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a somewhat fluffy, ‘nice to have’ business philosophy.
Nowadays, most senior company executives would acknowledge that it is a ‘must have’ business enabler. Society in general and communities in particular now expect businesses to be exemplary corporate citizens in the areas where their operations are located – and that means doing much more than simply providing employment.
According to Michael Crothers, MD, Shell E&P Ireland Limited (SEPIL), CSR is embedded in the way his company conducts its business. In Co Mayo, where SEPIL is the lead operator of the Corrib gas project, this boils down to respecting the local community and striving to be a good neighbour.
“In practice this means engaging and listening to the community’s concerns in order to be able to respond to them, understanding local needs and working with the community to deliver them,” he says.
“From a rocky start, we reached out to the community and have shown that we have listened and learned. We received a great response from the community and we are grateful for its acceptance. You do have to work at a relationship like this, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
SEPIL has been running three community investment initiatives in Erris for the past seven years – a Local Grants Programme, a Third-Level Scholarship Programme and a long-term Erris Development Fund (EDF).
As Fiona Togher, social investment advisor at SEPIL, explains: “We offer a comprehensive and diverse range of CSR and social investment initiatives involving financial and non-financial support to the voluntary and community sector and also support local business development as part of our overall commitment to sustainable development in the area that we operate in.
“The Local Grants Programme provides small scale funding to voluntary and community sector organisations and so far we’ve distributed €1.8m to 136 different organisations. Since 2007, our Third-Level Scholarship Programme has provided 93 scholarships to students in the Erris region to assist them going on to third-level studies around the country. This involved a total investment of €1.1m.”
Launched in 2009, the EDF represents a commitment from SEPIL to the region for the life of the Corrib gas project, which is 15–20 years. An initial fund of €5m was allocated for the construction phase.
“So far €4.2m has been allocated to 28 capital investment projects. SEPIL’s funding enabled the various organisations to leverage an additional €11m from other sources,” says Togher.
“We also deliver a range of proactive community initiatives under the EDF, such as Erris Enterprise Week and a Safe Driving Programme which is run in conjunction with the Road Safety Authority. In addition, we have provided 32 Irish language scholarships which allow students from the area to attend local Irish colleges over the summer.”
Frank Fullard, board member of the EDF, notes that Erris Enterprise Week started out three years ago as a one-off but it generated such a level of interest that it has become an annual fixture.
Open to organisations from across Co Mayo, Erris Enterprise Week last October involved a variety of free sessions giving business people access to advice and information on procurement, online trading and future digital opportunities.
In addition, entrepreneurial boot camps were held for students of Erris secondary schools in a Dragons’ Den style environment.
“The students are divided into teams that compete with one another. They have to come up with a business idea from scratch, develop a business plan and present it to the group. This year we had the help of an EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist acting as a consultant to the students,” Fullard explains.
All in all Shell has committed over €7.4m in funding across its three social investment programmes. Togher says the initiatives demonstrate that the company is committed to the development of the local community. “Stakeholder involvement has been one of the main benefits of these programmes. We have listened to stakeholders in the local area and based our investment programmes on their stated needs and priorities.”
Aside from the established CSR programmes, many of Shell’s employees have given of their time and expertise in various fundraising initiatives and education programmes.
For example, Shell has worked with Business in the Community Ireland (BITCI) for six years on three BITCI programmes – Skills at Work, Time to Read and Excellence for Teachers.
Fania Ellison, regional co-ordinator for the BITCI’s schools’ business partnership, explains: “Shell volunteers go into two secondary schools in the local area and give students an idea of the world of work, talking about what their jobs entail and how they got to where they are. We run seminars on team building, how to write a good CV and what’s involved in an interview. The programme gives students first-hand advice on the world of work and what’s expected of them.”
Time to Read involves Shell employees going into second class at primary level once a week for 24 weeks helping pupils to get excited about books and build confidence with their reading, while Excellence for Teachers provides courses and seminars delivered by Shell leaders as well as external trainers on areas such as change management, stress management and vision.
Crothers says Shell wants to build further on all its CSR initiatives and partnerships to date in Erris, where he has observed that volunteerism plays a central role in the life of the community.
“As we move into the operations and production phase of the Corrib gas development in 2015 we want to keep working with the community. The social investment programmes we have run to date have been transformational. It is incredible to see what the people of Erris have done to deliver real value and improve quality of community life here.”