Many of the original and, at the time, unorthodox ideas have since become accepted parts of corporate wisdom - such as building partnerships between the public and private sectors, backing community entrepreneurs and encouraging companies to devote a percentage of pre-tax profits towards community investment.

I have been President of Business in the Community since 1985. Looking back over the 450 events with which I have been involved in the intervening 12 years, it is encouraging to realise how much has been achieved in persuading companies to see the benefits of community investment.

Many of the original and, at the time, unorthodox ideas have since become accepted parts of corporate wisdom - such as building partnerships between the public and private sectors, backing community entrepreneurs and encouraging companies to devote a percentage of pre-tax profits towards community investment.

Business in the Community, which began with a handful of pioneering companies, now has 400 members (including three-quarters of the FTSE-100), a national network of regional support and six business-led teams focusing on how companies can make the greatest impact on some of our most deprived communities.

My experience with Business in the Community has taught me three key principles for engaging business in the problems of the community. The first is partnership. The power of partnership was first demonstrated when, in 1985, the example of Halifax, West Yorkshire, taught business leaders that, in cooperation with the local authority, they could help bring back employment opportunities to a declining milltown. That experience of persuading businesses to become involved in long-term, sustainable partnerships continues to be at the heart of Business in the Community's work.

The second principle is the importance of encouraging business leaders to see for themselves the problems , opportunities and examples of best practice on the ground. More than 800 business leaders have taken part in my 'Seeing is Believing' tours in the past seven years. The practical results have been heartening.

Many visits have encouraged companies to bring personal and management skills to the community. Under the auspices of KPMG, the accountancy firm, 320 business leaders have been paired with headteachers across the country in a teachers' 'mentoring project'. Regeneration partnerships have been formed in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, following a visit led by Allen Bridgewater, chief executive of Norwich Union, and in Thanet after a visit led by Sir Martin Laing, chairman of John Laing, the construction company. The full list of corporate involvement makes encouraging reading.

The third principle is the priceless value of that unsung hero or heroine, the community entrepreneur. Those communities which, against all odds, have succeeded in reversing a spiral of decline have done so, in my experience, because of local characters like Paddy Doherty in Londonderry who, in 1981, started to revitalise the bombed-out and rundown centre of his city. The results are spectacular.

I was delighted to hear Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, recently endorsing the contribution made by community, or social, entrepreneurs. But, however inspiring the individual, our experience in Business in the Community shows that behind every budding community entrepreneur there needs almost always to be a network of business support.

Some of the most senior business leaders involved in Business in the Community's work have been vital in working with community entrepreneurs, so that each can give and gain from the experience of the other. Bill Castell of Amersham, Neville Simms of Tarmac, and Sir Neil Shaw of Tate & Lyle are three examples. If companies are prepared to back the individual on the front line, whether a community entrepreneur or a dedicated head teacher, the results can be inspiring. I shall be seeing today the results achieved by a headteacher at Winton Primary School in King's Cross, London, where, with the help of business and community volunteers, reading skills have improved dramatically.

Gifts in time and kind are becoming as important as gifts of cash. Companies serious about their management development use community assignments to stretch the skills of their young managers. Marks & Spencer, for example, places 300 staff a year on ten-hour assignments and full-time secondment. And last year I was able to set up a new initiative called 'Gifts in Kind', which will make it easier for companies to recycle surplus products and IT equipment to community organisations that might otherwise go to waste.

Building social cohesion, raising achievement in schools, getting young unemployed off welfare and into work, and attracting a diverse workforce are seen as areas where the private sector has much to contribute. The government is seeking to utilise the hard-won experience of business leaders who have been involved with Business in the Community.

It is interesting, for example, to see that Business in the Community's experience is being put to use with Sir Peter Davis, chairman of Business in the Community, and Graham Hawker, chairman of Business in the Community Wales, chairing national taskforces on welfare-to-work.

But obviously a great deal more remains to be done. I hope Business in the Community will go on striving to raise the quality of corporate community investment. We must encourage companies to involve themselves in the most disadvantaged communities and the most intractable issues and I hope that the work of Business in the Community - to change the mainstream attitudes of companies and to influence how they recruit, train, sell, purchase and invest - will go on.

I also hope that Business in the Community will play a helpful role in inspiring companies to develop the ethos and values that could underpin their community work and initiatives in the run-up to the millennium and the century beyond.

The need for long-term sustainable solutions to the problems faced by our most struggling communities will not magically disappear in 2000. The vital contribution that business can go on making in the search for practical solutions will continue and I hope that the increasing number of examples of best practice all over the country will inspire others to harness the power of the business community to the needs of those who constitute its less-favoured clients and neighbours.