Fergus Finlay


Support from business community helps charities to make a difference

Danone has directly touched the lives of 60,000 children and has made an impact on them all, writes Fergus Finlay

Support from business community helps charities to make a difference

IT’S impossible to write about miserable stuff on a day like this. I know there’s lots of miserable stuff in the world, even hateful stuff, but every now and again you’re forced to realise that there’s really good stuff happening too.

On Sunday afternoon, for instance, I spent several hours in the company of hundreds of Dublin families, all enjoying a family fun day in the Airfield estate in Dundrum.

Airfield is a working farm and estate in the heart of the city, left in trust to the people of Dublin by the Overend family. It’s also a charity that offers a special experience of rural life to city kids.

It’s well worth a visit at any time of the year, but it’s a place of endless fascination in weather like this — when hundreds of different sorts of fruit and vegetables — including eating and wine-making grapes on the vine — are beginning to bloom.

Airfield offered us (in Barnardos, that is) a corner of the estate to enable us to celebrate a long partnership with Danone, the global nutrition company. And Danone in turn transformed the little field into a place of picnic blankets (and picnic baskets), games, face-painting, and toddler races.

Actually, to be more precise, there were three lanes for the races — a toddlers, a wobblers, and a “runners” lane. And fierce competition ensued in all three lanes, with everyone winning a proud certificate when they finished their run.

Danone have sponsored the Barnardos Big Toddle for 15 years now. It’s one of the biggest fundraisers we have, and it enables crèches and preschools around the country to support our work by having a sponsored toddle among their kids.

We supply the hats and the banners, with Danone’s support, and off they go.

Over the time it’s been running, the Big Toddle has raised almost €4m. And every penny has gone to enhance our work with young children and to boost the quality of the developmental work we do in our early years centres.

We reckon that through their support, Danone has directly touched the lives of 60,000 children over that time, and has made an impact on them all.

Danone, of course, is a global corporate giant, universally known throughout the world for its products. Corporate giants don’t always get a good press — and they don’t always deserve one. They exist, first and foremost, to make profit by understanding markets, by delivering products that consumers want, and by keeping their costs to the minimum.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that as the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has grown and developed, it has been greeted with scepticism and even cynicism.

The idea that hugely profitable companies might come to accept, as a core value, the thought that they have a responsibility to do good, in the community around them and in the wider world, can be hard to swallow when you think of some of the things that some companies have been, and are, responsible for.

There is a tendency, when you hear the term CSR, as it’s often referred to, to think of a company spending its petty cash, or its public relations budget, to try to do stuff that looks good without costing much.

But I’ve spoken to a large gathering of Danone employees, and that’s not how they see it. They’re really committed to making a difference, day in and day out.

And as it happens, one of the founders of the modern Danone, a Frenchman called Antoine Ribaud, was also one of the early pioneers of the principles of CSR.

His company later partnered with Mars, another global giant of the food industry, to create the Livelihoods Fund for Family Farming, which is investing hundreds of millions of euro in sustainable farming practices for smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

They’re not alone, companies like these. I could write a whole column telling you about how the management and staff of Dell, one of the largest computer companies in the world, have worked to support our work in their three main centres in Ireland.

If you visit Limerick or Ovens or Cherrywood, you’ll see what it means to them.

The company culture emphasises the idea of a “legacy of good” and when you meet them you realise that it means a lot to them.

They’re not just interested in supporting charity either — right now groups of Dell employees are teaching some of the most disadvantaged kids in Ireland to code, and to master the technology of tomorrow.

Without any doubt, they will secure breakthroughs in a number of young lives through their voluntary work.

And over the years I’ve worked with many companies, Irish and multinational, whose support has made all the difference to us and to our work. Irish charities exist for a reason — there is work that desperately needs doing.

And the great majority of Irish charities know that without the support of the community, including the business community, you can never make the difference you want to make.

Of course many of us depend on state support — often to the extent that we couldn’t open our doors without it.

We work very hard at delivering value for that investment. For most charities, of course, State support began to be cut the day the economy collapsed, and has never recovered.

In fact it was quite remarkable that one of the easiest things to do when the economy turned down was to cut the grants for vital work — in the hope that charities could keep the work going through their own fundraising.

But the truth is that even when State support was at its highest, it funded what you might call decent work.

It was the sort of funding that enabled charities to support people in crisis. But it never enabled charities to do transformative work — to make the sort of difference that ensured that families or children or people with disabilities could really grow in independence.

THAT sort of transformation happens when charities can invest in training, supervision, quality standards, research, innovation and evaluation.

For that to happen, charities have to become a little bit entrepreneurial themselves. They have to be willing to take risks and seek out better solutions.

I’ve found, over the years, that business understands that surprisingly well. In fact, it’s often been my experience that if you put a breathtakingly good idea that would address a social issue to a public servant, the standard answer will often be — “how much will it cost?”.

Put the same idea to a business person, and they’ll usually want to try to figure out the return on the investment.

There’s room for both, of course. But there’s a lot of fun to be had working alongside the hundreds of volunteers who commit themselves to Irish charities from the corporate sector. We’ve had everyone — painters, decorators, gardeners, drivers, IT specialists, accountants, lawyers, cooks and cleaners — over the years.

And now and again — like last Sunday in Airfield — you get to celebrate all that with a giant chocolate cake for the 15th birthday of the Big Toddle. Sure how could you beat that?

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