Avoiding Poverty Pornography

Wednesday, 10 February, 2010 - 11:31

Companies are increasingly involved in the economic, environmental and social well-being of communities. This involvement takes many forms, including sponsorships, cause-related marketing, social responsibility and corporate social investment (CSI). It is advisable for companies to partner with community projects to give them a measure of exposure and credibility. Corporate social responsibility is driven by business interests, while CSI should be about the role that business play in supporting community initiatives

We live in an era of crass exploitation of suffering for perceived image and commercial gain. It is a time when product or company and brand image is often being pushed on the back of communities and individuals who have fallen by the wayside of life. No ethical brand custodian, communications specialist, marketer or chief executive officer should properly be a part of this. Rather, their communications should be of an altogether deeper and more nuanced explaining of reality.

South African companies – either through a considered conscious decision, or through the encouragement of proscribed industrial sector charters, or in reaction to employee or consumer pressure – increasingly involve themselves in community good works of some or other sort through sponsorships, cause-related marketing, social responsibility and corporate social investment (CSI). A world of jargon surrounds these things, so let’s narrow down: my interest is in CSI programmes and their positioning.

This isn’t about corporate social responsibility (CSR) per se. The latter is about business in society and involves a commitment to contribute to the economic, environmental and social wellbeing of communities through various interventions. CSI is a core element of this but should be informed by a vision of business and society. It embraces a holistic concept of local communities, recognising that in any society there are organisations, institutions and individuals that are more effective agents of social change at the grassroots than business could ever be. While much of CSR is business led, CSI is different. In CSI, the role of business is a supportive one and is primarily about backing the initiative of others.

Communicating corporate social investment in appropriate ways is more of a challenge than might be imagined. Often this challenge comes in disciplining oneself not to forget why and how development initiatives are being carried out.

Properly constructed CSI programmes are those in which the bulk of effort is borne by individuals and organisations “on the ground” and the way we tell their story and the story of our associations with them must always be carefully done to maximise advantage for communities, demonstrate respect for our partners, and explain why we are involved in this sphere in the first place.

Still, there are many reasons why company CSI work and that of its partners in CSI should be communicated, and communicated well. It is of obvious importance in various ways to a company’s image in its own communities, particularly among employees. Again, as with all of this message-ing, sincerity should be the watchword – anything else would be better not done at all. Communicating community partnerships also assists beneficiary projects by helping them to attract other support. This is because a company agreeing to partner with community projects gives the latter a measure of exposure and even brand strength they might not have otherwise have had. Communicating CSI work can therefore be a valuable part of social investment, rather than just an add-on.

Talking consistently and clearly about CSI also helps to spread ‘learnings’ about what works in community development – learnings that come the hard way through the work of partners and through a company’s own experience.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t real challenges and drawbacks for CSI practitioners within their own companies. This is because:

  • CSI is not a direct income-generating activity (although long-term effects are real) and so its importance, and that of its communications, is sometimes not fully appreciated. This can suddenly change should the company face some overarching reputational risk issue, which is when some may mistakenly think that the CSI function is a “dip tank” to rescue company image. But that is not its purpose and here the CSI space must be defended).
  • Getting the message out (‘message-ing’) is often misunderstood as a part of a company’s marketing strategy and handled accordingly. Thus the immediate returns required by typical marketing campaigns are thought as needed when communicating CSI. But CSI is by its very nature a long-term horizon investment and its social returns-to-company less easy to measure than those of products.
  • Sometimes a level of community development-fatigue exists within companies or in society in general.

Yet defending CSI’s proper purpose and space doesn’t mean having to avoid project or partnership branding. It is right that a company’s partnership with a project should be duly acknowledged for reasons of benefit to the project, and to the supporting company both internally and externally. Here again common sense is the best guide:

  • Companies should be careful not to lend their name and image too readily to projects and events over which they have no control.
  • When branding through the placement of plaques or signage at the premises of a CSI project, it is best to have this signage dated. This is because you cannot always know what state the project or its work will be at some future time, when the signage will still be there.
  • Organisations and their projects should never be overwhelmed with branding. This leads to understandable public disquiet about motives.
  • Some things lend themselves to branding more than others – a hospice or a feeding scheme is less suitable for this than a marching band.
  • Placing messages in press releases or on project websites should be done using messages that pass the ‘glory’ onto the partner project. This leads us to the basics of the approach and philosophy to take.

As mentioned, we must be careful to always communicate in ways that respect the dignity of the people who work in development projects, and that respects beneficiaries.

Here are thoughts to inform a careful approach:

  • Enter into agreements and relationships with beneficiary organisations and communities with an understanding of the seriousness of developmental work. CSI must not be seen as frivolous activity. Doing so would undermine the sincerity and integrity of this important effort.
  • It is in the sometimes perceived power relationship nature of funder vis a vis beneficiary that the latter will appear in the lesser position. Be careful. Very, perhaps most, often the opposite is true in terms of the work done, expertise employed, sacrifice made, and results achieved. Never be blinded otherwise.
  • Be mindful of the difference between cause-related marketing and meaningful community development, and act accordingly.

It should be remembered that CSI practitioners are not really in the business of empowering anybody – change champions in developmental organisations or institutions being funded are. Indeed, I sometimes think that the terms ‘empower’ and ‘uplift’ falsely and patronisingly put the credit for positive change on the funder or ‘giver’, whereas no amount of giving will get us anywhere unless the “receiver” is the change champion, the doer.

The best that corporate social investors can hope for is to increase opportunity or to expand possibilities. The real victories come afterwards and always and only through remarkable and dedicated individuals.

So useful CSI communications aren’t about spending x amount on a development organisation and then many times that on boasting about the fact. They aren’t about smiling children wearing red ribbons. They’re not about the company as Father Christmas.

Rather, they’re about considered support for remarkable individuals and their organisations. It’s not the business of just responding to need. It’s about backing champions. Done properly, it’s an investment with real social returns itself.

- Paul Pereira is Tshikululu Social Investments Executive: Public Affairs. This article first appeared in Issue 19 of the WITS Business School Journal. It is republished here with the permission of Tshikululu Social Investments.

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