Over the last 20 years, as President of Business in the Community, I have been able to see at first hand the difference for the better that companies can make for some of our most deprived communities.

Over the last 20 years, as President of Business in the Community, I have been able to see at first hand the difference for the better that companies can make for some of our most deprived communities. Right from the beginning, it was evident to me that they have the skills, power, expertize and fleetness of foot to make a real and lasting impact. The big challenge, however, was to find a way to show business leaders, who are justifiably pre-occupied with their day-jobs, just where their help was needed.

There was one particular incident which brought this home to me. In the mid 1980s, on a visit to the United States of America, I saw something of the regeneration of the former cotton-milling town of Lowell in Massachusetts, and wanted to see if we could emulate some of their experience in the United Kingdom. Consequently, I started an initiative with Business in the Community to help regenerate Halifax – a mill town that in the 1980s had seen a desperate decline in jobs and opportunities. I knew it was vital to involve the private sector, but soon found this could only be possible if I could persuade business leaders to come with me to Halifax and see for themselves what the issues were and what needed to be done.

In 1990, as a result of this experience, I started my Seeing is Believing programme which involved inviting business leaders to leave their desks and to join me on visits to different parts of the country where they could spend some time in inner city schools, homeless hostels, prisons, or tough housing estates to see at first-hand the challenges faced by their future customers, potential employees and close neighbours. More recently, the programme has taken business leaders into rural communities where deprivation is just as real as in our urban areas, but considerably better hidden by the beauty of the scenery.

Fifteen years later, more than 4000 business leaders have been involved on more than 400 visits. They have been asked to consider how their business can play a real role in tackling some of our most pressing social issues. Each and every one of them has been asked for a detailed report on what they have found and what they might do through their company. We have discussed their impressions and, more importantly, their actions at more than thirty seminars, which I have hosted. And we know it works. The results are many and varied, but about 70 per cent of the leaders report that they changed the way they do business as a result of their Seeing is Believing visit.

It is almost too obvious to say that business is often the key economic driver in society, but over the years it has become increasingly clear that business leaders can also shape the social and environmental impact of their businesses on communities around them, whether here at home or globally. I like to think that perhaps the Seeing is Believing programme has helped business leaders to see how often quite small actions - like committing to recruit locally, or offering work placements, or bringing business expertize to local community entrepreneurs - can not only result in extraordinary change for communities, but also better businesses. At its heart this is about responsible leadership in responsible businesses. Seeing is Believing encourages leaders to think about the influence they can have both within and without their companies. The 15th anniversary gives an opportunity to take stock of the results and to reflect on some of the lessons we have learnt.

The first is that business leaders need, of course, a clear business case for community engagement and we have seen a real increase in compelling business arguments. It is right that any company needs to see a return on its investment, but over the years the definition of “return” has changed markedly. We hear from member companies all the time that employees have rising expectations of the way in which they do business and relate to the wider community and, increasingly, companies have responded to this. In 1992, you could count the number of companies with employee-volunteering initiatives on one hand. Now more than 75 per cent of the top 100 FTSE companies have programmes encouraging employees to become involved in their communities. And it is remarkable just what can be achieved when employees pull together in this way. For instance, in 1998 a Seeing is Believing visit went to a Sheffield housing estate and inspired business leaders to collaborate together to tackle literacy problems in the Yorkshire and Humber region. It resulted in the Right to Read campaign, founded by the Yorkshire Post, Yorkshire Television and Yorkshire Water – all of whom came on that visit – whereby business volunteers commit to spend an hour a week in one-to-one reading with primary school children. Some 45,000 pupils have now been supported by over 4,500 volunteers. Given that 12 weeks of regular support of this sort can improve a child's reading age by six months, this has been a truly impressive initiative. And there is a very clear business case for this particular approach – a well-educated workforce is vital if Britain is to remain competitive.

Secondly, we have found that the Seeing is Believing programme can, quite literally, change business behaviour. While we have used the programme to engage business leaders on a vast range of issues, including education, prisons and rural communities, it is our work with homeless people that perhaps best illustrates what I mean. In 2000, more than 150 business leaders visited homeless agencies and hostels through the “Seeing is Believing” programme, and as a result, we created the Business Action on Homelessness team, led ably by John Studzinski who was then Deputy Chairman of Morgan Stanley International. The first thing he did was to commission research by Bain and it showed that companies on the whole did not see homelessness as an issue of importance for them, but felt that it was a problem which rested with the Government or the voluntary sector. The homelessness team decided to take this head-on by proving that companies probably had the greatest power to break the cycle of homelessness through offering work placements, job coaching and mentoring. Five years on and after many more Seeing is Believing visits, more than 1600 homeless people have been through two-week placements in companies and more than 47 per cent have been offered jobs. Business behaviour is changing and a real social problem is being addressed. I am particularly pleased that this work incorporates an effort to help homeless ex-servicemen - who are estimated to make up perhaps as much as 25 per cent of all homeless people - through a most effective partnership led by Mike Wareing, Global Chief Executive of KPMG, with the Ministry of Defence.

Thirdly, we are now able to see that the benefits of engagement with the community in this manner is by no means all one way. Of course, local communities can certainly benefit, but the interesting fact is that business leaders have found that they, too, reap rewards by getting closer to customers, becoming more relevant to future employees and gaining the opportunity to innovate and connect in new markets. Roffey Park business school produced research in 1999 showing that 60 per cent of top business leaders said they had their best and most innovative ideas when engaged in community investment activities. The roll-call of winners of Business in the Community's annual Awards for Excellence shows that many winning programmes started as an ingenious idea following a Seeing is Believing visit, and the most successful programmes illustrate the benefit to both the business and the community. This can be in so many different ways: for instance, by paying more attention to its environmental impact, a business can reduce its own costs; by recruiting and training long-term unemployed, a business can build a more committed and loyal workforce.

Finally, over the last 15 years, I think we and the business community have learnt the importance of partnership and cooperation. I have seen countless examples of remarkable people working in some desperate areas who are true entrepreneurs themselves. By linking the drive and determination of these “community entrepreneurs” with the skills of a business entrepreneur the most extraordinary energy is unlocked. The Penryhs Partnership in South Wales, which began in 1991 following a Seeing is Believing visit led by Sir William Castell, who was then Chief Executive of Amersham International, resulted in an enduring partnership between him and the remarkable local vicar, The Rev John Morgan, which then led to a range of initiatives to help the long-term unemployed back into work and to address some of the most pressing social issues. There are numerous other examples and some are illustrated in this supplement. In terms of scale, perhaps the most high-profile example has been the Partners in Leadership programme which has twinned nearly 7,000 head teachers with business leaders, giving both the business and education worlds an opportunity to learn from each other. And we know from experience that both sides of the partnership gain from it.

I need hardly say that I am immensely grateful to all the business leaders who have been part of this great exercise, and I hope that they and the community groups and projects with which we have worked around the country feel that it has made a difference for the better. But what of the future? Certainly the rising expectations over the past 15 years of how business should operate has put great pressures on the leadership of companies. It has been enormously encouraging to witness the positive way in which so many have responded to these pressures. But they are not going to lessen as time goes on. If companies are to maintain the support which they need in order to succeed, then those at the top need to understand the issues which affect their employees, their suppliers, their customers and the communities within which they operate. My experience over the last 20 years is that business is becoming better and better at doing just this. Understandably, of course, many are driven by the short-term demands of the market but, increasingly, it seems to me that many responsible leaders are now seeing the importance of the longer-term impact of their business activities, and I hope that Seeing is Believing has played a part in that change.

But, dare I say it, this has only been a warm-up for the biggest challenge we have to face. The threat from climate change has now become – or should be - mankind's greatest priority. It is a problem of such magnitude that it demands an urgent co-ordinated response, based on actions across every sector of society; but the role of the business community is absolutely critical. Already there are many who are giving an excellent lead and some of these have supported my Seeing is Believing programme in the past. However, there is so much more to be done and business can make the greatest difference of all. I can only pray that we do not have to see the consequences of global warming to believe them…