Building a social value framework: utilising partnerships to deliver impact

When reflecting on the importance of inclusion in tech, we must look beyond just the boundaries of our workforces, and take an inclusive outlook on the services that we provide to the population as a whole. Digital exclusion is a real and growing problem in the UK, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable groups in society. Essential services such as healthcare, education and financial assistance are becoming increasingly digitised, making digital skills and access to devices critical to everyday life. As a result of this shift, there is a common misconception that we are living in a completely digital society, but the statistics show that there are entire communities slipping through the cracks.

Digital exclusion has a huge cost

A 2022 report by Ofcom found that 1 in 4 children who are classed as vulnerable in the UK don’t have access to a suitable learning device, 70% of households earning £17.5k or less a year only have foundational digital skills, and 10 percent of Londoners don’t own a smartphone. In addition to the social disadvantages this presents, a recent report from The Good Things Foundation estimated that digital exclusion is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year. The report also estimated that for every £1 invested in digital inclusion initiatives, a return of £9.48 is gained throughout the economy, highlighting a clear economic argument for ensuring that digital is accessible for everyone.  

Awareness of the benefits of bridging the digital divide is starting to increase, particularly within the tech industry, and so for many organisations, the question has shifted from the “why” to the “how”: how do we ensure that our contribution is authentic and reaches the right people, and how do we utilise partnerships and collaboration to deliver the most impact?

Start by putting social value at the forefront of business decision-making

We found that assessing the positive impact of our day-to-day business and then looking at how we could broaden that from a social perspective was a great starting point for us. As a digital infrastructure provider, Cellnex UK plays an essential role in bridging the digital divide everyday through our core business activity, which includes infrastructure provision for the Shared Rural Network programme, as well as emergency service networks. The nature of our business means that we operate in thousands of communities up and down the country, and so a responsible, people-focused approach has always been central to our operations at every level of the supply chain. 

Adding social value is about going that step beyond. To really make a difference to digital inclusion, we needed to go beyond delivering critical infrastructure and address issues that were outside the scope of our core operations. Bridging the digital divide is about ensuring that no one, and nowhere, is left behind. In order to achieve this, sufficient digital skills, access to devices and the financial means to get online must be an option for every individual in the UK.  

Work with local communities and the organisations who are already embedded in them

We quickly realised that if we wanted to reach the people who needed it the most, we needed to work with organisations who could connect us to local communities. Our partnerships with the brilliant UK Community Foundations (UKCF) and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) have helped to ensure that our contribution is impactful; allowing us to support grassroots organisations and smaller community groups who directly help the people that need it.  

Moving into 2024, we are supporting 12 grassroots community groups based across the ten boroughs of Greater Manchester via our partner Forever Manchester (part of the UKCF network). The organisations we are supporting do great work helping a broad range of impacted groups with digital skills and employability, including people with learning difficulties, refugees, asylum seekers, elderly people and children from underrepresented backgrounds. 

"A lack of digital access and skills can have a huge negative impact on a person’s life, leading to increased loneliness and social isolation, less access to jobs and education, which in turn are associated with poorer health outcomes and a lower life expectancy and issues with financial exclusion. 

Forever Manchester are delighted to be working in collaboration with Cellnex in support of their ESG goals, to create the Cellnex Digital Inclusion Fund which has been designed specifically to fund and support community projects tackling digital exclusion across Greater Manchester.”

Nick Massey, Chief Executive - Forever Manchester. 

We are proud to have been shortlisted for Business Supporter of the Year by Forever Manchester and look forward to building our relationship further throughout 2024. 

Recognise that digital exclusion is compounded for minority groups

The research from Ofcom shows that a disproportionate number of the people impacted by digital exclusion are from marginalised groups, with some of the most vulnerable being refugees, ethnic minority groups, people with disabilities and non-native English speakers. Digital exclusion can further exacerbate some of the social and economic disadvantages faced by these groups, making it not just an issue of digital inclusion but one of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as a whole. From this standpoint, it is even more vital that support is available to allow equal opportunity for all these groups and a range of assistance that recognises their specific digital needs. 

Our work with the PLIAS Resettlement is a fantastic example of this. The PLIAS Resettlement is a non-profit organisation based in West London, that helps ex-offenders, victims of crime, and those vulnerable to both situations to re-build their lives. We were first connected with the PLIAS team via the London Community Foundation back in 2022, and have since supported their digital skills programme. Some of the most common beneficiaries are people who have spent a long time in prison, and don’t have the digital skills required for today’s society, and victims of domestic violence, who have often had their access to digital services and devices controlled or removed completely by their abuser.  

“The funding from Cellnex UK and The London Community Foundation has been a lifeline to us as an organisation, but that lifeline is extended to the women escaping domestic abuse and their families.”

Norma Hoyte, Director – PLIAS Resettlement 

Engaging our workforce on the issue of social value

Our social value work is a key part of our business identity, which means we involve our workforce in our activity as much as possible. A great example of this is our school volunteering programme, which we developed with the help of Digital Skills Education. As part of the programme, our colleagues will go out to schools local to our offices and engage children with the work that the telecoms industry does and the career opportunities within it. The schools have children from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds making it a great opportunity to encourage a more diverse and inclusive future workforce for the industry. 

Our ultimate aim is for our social value work to be so embedded into our business that our colleagues view it as part of the everyday. We regularly keep our colleagues updated with the work that we’re doing and recently hosted a webinar during Get Online Week with some of the organisations that we partner with, which allowed our colleagues to hear directly about the people our support has helped. We consistently hear from our colleagues that one of the things they like the most about working for us is our community impact, and having this level of workforce engagement really is key to having an authentic, impactful social value programme

Cellnex's journey: reflecting back and looking forward 

We are extremely proud of our social value programme that sits within our core business values of inclusion, integrity and sustainability and in particular, the work of our community partners and the brilliant charities they connect us with. The industry as a whole also does a great job of advocating for inclusion in tech and Tech Talent Charter is a strong voice for this. However, we know that we cannot solve the digital divide alone. 

To have a long-standing impact we must also be a voice for change for the things we can’t control. It would be remiss not to use this opportunity to call on the UK government to prioritise digital inclusion as part of its policy structure, service offerings and education curriculum. Improvements at a national scale are key to levelling the playing field and reducing the risk of digital exclusion for all. 

Finally, for organisations looking to develop their social activity it is important to recognise that it will be a journey. Cellnex UK’s social value programme has come a long way since we started our journey in 2020, but we are constantly learning and adapting and we don’t always get everything right the first time. Collaboration with partners such as SCVO, London Community Foundation and Forever Manchester - as well as your colleagues and the wider industry - really is key. Together is how we have the biggest impact.