In conversation with Ali Hastings

Please describe your role and responsibilities, how many years you have been in the company?

I’ve been at Unite Students for just over 7 years (I get my month’s sabbatical award for this at the end of the year and am off to India, can’t wait!). I started this role around 3 ½ years ago with the mandate to oversee the management of our corporate foundation and establish a CSR program. Since then it has evolved to focus on our social investment activity, working to ensure that this is fully embedded across our business and is strategically aligned to our business purpose, Home for Success.

What was your background previously and where did your interest in community begin?

I used to be a snowboard instructor and ended up running an indoor ski slope in the UK. During this time, I worked with a lot of not-for-profit and charitable organisations, and decided that I wanted to aim to either work for a charity or an organisation where I could really give something back through the work I was doing. With a hop, skip, and a jump, I was managing student accommodation, which opened up the opportunity for me to start engaging the company in more responsible business activities, which ultimately led to this role. Businesses have such an impact on their stakeholders – I generally believe they have a responsibility to do the right thing by them, and that there is real value and longevity in doing this.

How has your community investment program evolved at your company?

Massively! When I started in this role, there wasn’t any kind of program in place. We’ve gone from doing some philanthropic giving, to having embedded a wide program of activities which has a clear purpose and is aligned strategically to the broader business.

What are the challenges you encounter in driving the sustainability agenda and how do you stay inspired?

Even though our program has massively developed and evolved in the last few years, it hasn’t always felt like that. It’s definitely been a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. People and organisations have very mixed opinions on the value of responsible business programmes. Combine that with a landscape of changing priorities, at times it can feel like an uphill battle.

Having said that, through perseverance (and quite a lot of resilience), you definitely see wins along the way, for example, suddenly getting the buy-in you were after that gives a project the green light, or seeing a team or individual getting involved and really recognising the value in it. I think it’s all too easy to forget what you’ve achieved so my advice would be to make sure you take a few minutes out a couple of times a year to reflect on everything you’ve done. Even though it might not feel like it all the time – you will have been doing a lot and making progress!

What is your biggest accomplishment or learning so far?

Broadly speaking, I would say my biggest accomplishment so far would be the progress we have made with our overarching responsible business strategy ‘Up to uS’. Myself and a couple of others have worked really hard to get the company to recognise that being a responsible business isn’t the responsibility of a particular team, or just in a few areas of activity. But actually, about how you do all aspects of your business – and that every person in the organisation has a part to play in this. It’s definitely been a journey to get here and we now even have ‘Do the Right Thing’ as one of our core business values.

My main learning through this has been about not giving up. Keep working on the incremental changes and you’ll reach a point where they add up to really mean something significant. Don’t be scared to speak up, and know when you need to ‘tell’ rather than ‘ask’.

What is your motto in life?

Can I cheat and say two?! I would say, treat others as you want others to treat you, sometimes that means making the extra effort. And, don’t pass up opportunities, take the plunge, push your boundaries, you never know what might come from it!

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