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By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

A week in America | 15 April 2022

As high school seniors across the U.S. prepare for Prom, Martin Liptrot discusses how local businesses help out the next generation of workers, and how Corporate America could learn a thing or two from them.


Even if you’ve never lived in or visited America you are aware of the phenomenon of high school Prom.  

Much of my initial love affair with the Land of the Free was formed when, sat in a suburban semi-detached on the drizzly and blustery Wirral, I watched those classic high school prom movies: Grease, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Footloose and Pretty in Pink.

The allure of the American high school experience was compelling and subsequent flicks like 10 Things I Hate About You, Mean Girls and Napoleon Dynamite show the school dance remains fertile ground for movie makers.

This month, across the U.S., high school seniors are readying themselves for their own big night and legion of parents are getting their credit cards ready, because, of course, none of this comes cheap.

Proms 2020 and 2021 were lost to the COVID lockdowns but according to research conducted by credit card companies and youth publications like Just Seventeen and Teen Vogue, in person proms are staging a big come back this Spring.

But the pandemic has surely left its mark on everything so it will be interesting to see what is different.

Last year big brands popular with Gen Z and Millennials stepped up and hosted virtual Proms on TikTok, MTV and in popular video game platforms like Animal Crossing.

It is also a time of year when local businesses flex their corporate social responsibility muscles and chip in to help those students for whom the typical $1500 spend on prom and all its trappings is simply out of reach. Recycled dresses, discounted tuxedos, free hairstyling and transportation are all proudly provided by everyone in the community from shopping malls to taxi firms, corporate sponsors, dry cleaners and fast-food outlets.

And that perhaps is what is most interesting.

While Social Responsibility in its various guises as ESG, citizenship, creating shared value, and triple bottom line accounting has become a huge compliance and policy consideration for businesses across the western world, helping out on your local doorstep has lost none of its appeal.

I’m a huge believer in the ethos of Social Responsibility. That is, simply stated, the responsibility of business is not just to shareholders but to all the communities it serves.  

Sorry to all those Adam Smith fans out there, though in fairness to the 18th century economist and author of Wealth of Nations there were no Walmart or Amazon in his day and business was, by modern definition, all ‘small business’.

While today’s big businesses are busying themselves polishing their brand credentials, setting up trade association working groups, sending delegations to Davos and interacting with regulators and governments to define the rules and restrictions their operations are willing to comply with, local small businesses are still putting their hard earned cash into programs like National Prom – a charitable organisation which provides dresses and tuxedos for disadvantaged youths, homeless kids or those with disabilities.

Big business ESG and Public Affairs VP’s may look down their noses at charitable giving and philanthropy as being somehow ‘an old fashioned’ or lesser part of their Corporate Responsibility mix, but I think they are wrong.

Small business charitable giving is an impactful part of any local economy.

SCORE, the nation’s largest network of business mentors and volunteer advisors, produced research which says 75% of America’s small businesses give approximately 6% of their profits to local good causes.

They do so, the research suggests, not just because there are tax advantages and good PR opportunities, but also because the impact on employee morale and productivity is huge too – 93% of employees reported they felt more engaged when they knew their employer was active in the local community.

And while big business is bank-rolling the corporate charities with their billionaire benefactors, highly remunerated boards and glossy literature and online marketing campaigns, local charities which do so much good in the towns and villages where we live, rely on the largesse of the local small business community.

The research reveals that small business provides a staggering 250% more funding than Corporate America to local non-profits and good causes.

And readers of this column will know that America’s enterprises – from construction firms working on billion-dollar infrastructure programs to the local restaurant or ‘mom and pop store’ – are in the throws of a huge labour shortage.

What better way to find staff and new entrants to your workforce than to have met and supported those very high school leavers as they enjoy their big night out.

Smart thinking small business. Wake up Corporate America!

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Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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