Which organisations do the most for their local communities? Five years ago, few members of the public would have said the supermarkets. Today, you might well get a different response. Last month, Morrisons became the third UK supermarket to board the vouchers-for-schools bandwagon. Pioneered by Tesco in 1992, it is a concept that is clearly going from strength to strength in the major multiples (see boxouts).

And it is just one of a growing number of initiatives being launched by the supermarkets in and for the local communities in which they operate. In August, Waitrose rolled out its Community Matters scheme and last month The Co-operative Group launched a major consultation across its membership of its community spend.

So why the sudden increase in activity? How meaningful is it? And will the economic slowdown prove a help or a hindrance? Over the past decade or so, supermarket philanthropy has evolved dramatically. Amateurish locally run schemes for local people have gradually made way for slicker, nationally sanctioned schemes organised for and by local people.

Such schemes have not been without criticism, but as far as the supermarkets are concerned, the pros most definitely outweigh the cons. PR-wise, what better way to assuage people’s concerns about the growing might of the supermarkets than showing the human face of the corporate machine? Or to demonstrate their leadership in tackling issues such as childhood obesity? Or, indeed, answer the critics?

Though some experts maintain that as a result, the benefits to the supermarkets outweigh those of the communities they purport to serve, others believe a sea change is taking place with the substance of charitable initiatives finally beginning to match the style.

As supermarket CSR strategies have become more meaningful, so have their community initiatives, says Tanja Rasmussen, community investment campaign director at Business in the Community. Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Marks & Spencer were among just 21 British companies to be awarded BITC’s new CommunityMark this year. All three companies have moved beyond “marketing-led, one-size-fits-every-store community programmes to create deep, meaningful, long-term relationships with local charities and other good causes on the ground”, she says.

Using staff as the local link
The British multiples are ahead of their peers elsewhere in the world, with the exception of the US, where the relationship between business and philanthropy is more deeply entrenched, she believes.

“If you look across Europe and the rest of the world, the UK retailers are at the forefront. There is a strong tradition here of being involved in the social impact of business activity,” she says. Supermarkets also stand up well against other sectors within the UK, says Rasmussen. “Supermarkets – and retailers in general – are some of the most sophisticated businesses when it comes to engaging with the community, because they physically sit within the community,” she adds.

Though schemes these days tend to be centrally devised, they are locally executed and one of the keys to their success has been the enfranchisement of local staff. At Sainsbury’s, which donates food to people via charity FareShare, for instance, store staff choose which charities benefit from the donation of unsold food.

“Whether it’s a local church or an animal sanctuary, the local store will decide,” says Andy White, head of community projects, adding that £5m-worth of food was distributed during the past financial year. Sainsbury’s and Tesco also champion the philanthropic efforts of staff. Sainsbury’s does this through its Local Heroes programme (see below), while Tesco has a similar scheme called Community Champions.

BITC also praises the three Community- Mark holders for neatly tying their local community work in with that other major CSR objective – going green. In donating food, Sainsbury’s not only helps the local community, it also reduces the amount sent to landfill – almost 10,000 tonnes of food went to charity rather than landfill last year.

“This is a win-win situation, and they have been very smart about how they use their resources in this area,” says Rasmussen. Tesco, meanwhile, links its community work with its climate change strategy by rewarding shoppers who hand in unwanted telephones and empty printer cartridges with its Computers for Schools vouchers. ‘You support the planet, we’ll support your school’ is the message.

While they have yet to be awarded CommunityMarks, Asda and The Co-operative Group have also been busy doing their bit for local communities. The Co-op recently asked its three million members to complete an online poll designed to determine which good causes should benefit from a portion of its profits, and which social issues the organisation should champion. Asda operates a number of grassroots initiatives aimed at engaging one customer in particular.

“If we can help mum, then hopefully she will continue shopping with us,” reasons community manager Karen Todd. Alongside its longstanding support for causes including Children in Need and baby charity Tommy’s, it has Tickled Pink, its own breast cancer care initiative.

“The current Tickled Pink campaign is a good example of how our events co-ordinators drive our initiatives at a local store level,” says Todd. “They dress up in pink wigs, sit in vats of pink blancmange and really bring it all to life.”

Asda also runs school voucher schemes, though Todd is quick to point out that they are not linked to checkout spend. The most recent scheme, Go Green for Schools, rewards shoppers with vouchers when they use alternatives to new plastic bags. These can then be redeemed by local schools in return for ‘eco-equipment’ such as solar panels and mini weather stations.

“We gave out more than eight million vouchers during the first six months of this year,” says Todd. “It was absolutely not about spend. It was about driving a change in behaviour.”

What’s it really worth?
One of the residual complaints about most voucher schemes is that they are linked to spend – and each voucher is worth far less than the consumer perceives it to be. Under the current Tesco scheme, for instance, consumers need to spend between £16,500 to £33,000 to get a digital camera. For a school to get its hands on a portable basketball goal under the Sainsbury’s Active Kids programme, a mighty £49,690 needs to be spent. Meanwhile, shoppers would collectively have to fork out £18,000 to pick up an indoor growing kit under Morrisons’ Let’s Grow scheme.

“When people look at it, they think ‘God – they’re not really giving much away here, are they?’” says Dave Lawrence, director at The Promotions Practice, a marketing consultancy that has worked on a range of family-oriented campaigns.

The supermarkets, of course, leap to their voucher schemes’ defence. “It’s rather unfair,” says Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Tesco’s director of corporate and legal affairs. “They are something for nothing for shoppers. Obviously if you are going for a very sophisticated computer, you may have to collect a lot of vouchers, but we are dealing with that by widening the range of products.”

Tesco, like the other retailers that operate spend-related schemes, point out how much they have raised over the years. Tesco claims it has handed out more than £118m of equipment to schools since 1992, while Sainsbury’s claims to have distributed more than £52m of kit between 2005 and 2007 under its Active Kids scheme, with a further £20m expected this year. Schools and parents love voucher programmes, they insist.

Rob Crumbie, head of the Active Kids voucher scheme, cites a recent Sainsbury’s survey that suggested two thirds of customers felt more positive about the company as a result of its vouchers. Morrisons, meanwhile, reports that more than 13,000 schools registered for the Let’s Grow voucher scheme in the six weeks following its launch on 1 September.

Like them or loathe them, voucher schemes are here to stay. The good news for detractors is that they’ve been joined by a raft of new community-focused schemes that offer more immediately tangible benefits. Waitrose’s Community Matters scheme is a good example of a scheme that not only empowers the staff at a local level but also shoppers (see above). There are likely to be more such initiatives as supermarkets look for relatively cost-effective ways to build customer loyalty and demonstrate they care.

“It’s simple. Our colleagues and our customers are our neighbours,” says White. “If we are working with them and supporting them in the community, they will come and shop with us more.”

BITC recently discussed the impact of the economy on charitable initiatives with a group of 35 UK business leaders. “They all anticipate that there will be a fall in donations from a cash point of view,” says Rasmussen. “But there is also a belief that companies’ connections with local communities will be even stronger.” Indeed, local projects drawing on staff volunteering and other non-cash resources are likely to receive a boost as national fundraising campaigns are scaled back, she believes. The downturn makes community-based activity more important than ever, agrees Neville-Rolfe. “People want a sense of belonging when things are more difficult, and we need to make sure our community programmes respond to that.” Being a good neighbour is critical to the success of operations and the loyalty of customers, she says. “Also, getting involved in charity work is both a morale booster and a useful training tool for staff. Some of the charitable activities we do, such as our work with the British Red Cross, have been a great experience for some of our people in stores.”

Experts nevertheless sound a note of caution. Community-based projects can deflect attention away from more important areas of corporate and social responsibility, warns Mark Line, director at consultancy firm CRS Network.

“It’s all very well doing good work in the local community, but you have to look at the areas that need most attention,” he says. “CSR should focus on core material issues, which from our point of view mean the supply chain and making sure suppliers are getting a fair deal. If it is philanthropy, if they really want to support a claim that this isn’t just PR-driven, then they should be making more of a case for themselves with public disclosures.”

Ultimately, however, whether supermarket local community involvement is driven by PR, philanthropy, or a mixture of the two, the bottom line for supermarkets is their customers expect them to be engaged in community work.

“At the end of the day, a healthy high street needs a healthy back street,” says Rasmussen. “If your customers are struggling for any social or economic reason, you will suffer as a business.”

If you can help them in some way, on the other hand, they will help you in return.
Launched in 2005, Sainsbury’s Active Kids is a vouchers-for-schools initiative that aims to increase physical activity among schoolchildren. This year it was extended to include a host of new outdoor pursuits as part of a tie-up with the nation’s one million Scouts and Girl Guides. The retailer also runs Local Heroes, a community-based scheme that provides financial and training support to employees who devote their own time and effort to local good causes.

“Whether it’s working with the local football club, schools or charities, we will support our colleagues with donations from our charitable fund,” says Andy White, head of community projects.


Next year, Tesco is uniting its Computers for Schools with its Sport for Schools and Clubs voucher schemes. Part of its Get Active programme, Tesco for Schools & Clubs will give participants more choice on how they spend their vouchers. The retailer also runs Community Champions, a scheme where members of staff spend about 18 hours a week on community projects. These staff act as ambassadors, dedicating themselves to community and charitable activities, says Tesco. Worldwide, it plans to have 100 stores running the scheme by the end of the year.

More than 13,000 schools registered for Morrisons’ new Let’s Grow voucher scheme in the six weeks following its launch on 1 September. Let’s Grow aims to help schools capture the imagination of the nation’s kids to show them that food doesn’t just come from supermarkets. For every £10 spent in-store, customers receive a voucher that schools can collect and redeem for brand new gardening equipment including seeds, spades and greenhouses. With the help of experts, Morrisons offers advice on how schools can make the most of their gardens.

Launched this year, Waitrose’s Community Matters scheme allows customers to choose where their local store’s donations are spent. Every month, head office gives a store £1,000 to spend on three nominated charities. Customers are given a token at the checkout, which they can use to vote for their favoured charity. The £1,000 is then divvied up according to the votes cast. Waitrose’s parent group John Lewis also operates the Golden Jubilee Trust, which gives members up to six months’ fully paid time off to work for a local charity of their choice.

Marks & Spencer
Plan A, Marks & Spencer’s £200m plan to become environmentally sustainable within five years, includes several community activities. Profits from the company’s new policy of charging for carrier bags are being used to create green spaces across the UK. M&S encourages customers to take their unwanted clothes to a local Oxfam store by giving them a £5 voucher for their efforts. In February, it ran a Fashion Amnesty to coincide with London Fashion Weekend, asking visitors to the Weekend to bring along their unwanted clothes for recycling.