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Victor Blank: Business must start a giving revolution

Giving back to society is a no-brainer and should be an intrinsic part of today's capitalism

Big business and the City have taken a battering since the banking crisis as storms of criticism have left the financial sector with an ugly black eye. At a time when the elastic connecting the wealthy and the poor is stretching to snapping point, the corporate world ignores festering social tensions at its peril. So there is no better time for businesses to unleash a surge in corporate giving to send a very public signal that we are all in this together and want to make society better.

The untold story is that a significant number of businesses are donating money, time and resources and have been doing so, without fanfare, for years. One estimate published by the City of London Corporation calculated that financial and professional services firms made community investments in 2009 worth £519 million.

But this quiet philanthropy needs a shot of adrenaline. There will always be critics who only see donations as a percentage of profit, but this step-change in giving must not be stunted by sniping. It is estimated that only 1 per cent of British-based employers run a payroll giving scheme. Payroll giving, much more widely in use in America at 35 per cent, has the advantage of giving business leaders and the workforce a stake in doing good.

As we approach Budget day, it is something George Osborne should seek to make simpler for firms to set up and run. Our political leaders and civil servants have so far failed dismally to make individual and corporate giving simpler – whether it is simplifying tax relief, making it easy to give via ATMs or giving tax incentives to the rich to donate art and other assets during their lifetimes.

But if the Treasury does start to encourage giving, big companies and banks must raise their game dramatically. And if business is to play a greater part in helping society and community, there needs to be a clear acknowledgement from shareholders that they feel the same and will support greater philanthropy. Just as the super wealthy like Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and Sir Richard Branson are leading the way, business must kick-start a giving revolution. Giving in the City is a tradition going back to the Livery Companies of centuries ago and on through to the Victorian philanthropy of the industrial era. Now is the time for 21st century corporate giving.

Corporate social responsibility is becoming part of the strategic DNA of some companies, but the gap between British business and the community has grown wider. Big companies and banks are not all self-serving, even if some people portray them as such, but they can do more. Giving back to society is a no-brainer and should be an intrinsic part of capitalism today. But it needs action now from the corporate sector and from Government.

Sir Victor Blank is a former chairman of Lloyds Banking Group, GUS and Trinity Mirror, a UK Business Ambassador and a philanthropist