No Silver Bullet for CSI Success, But a Plan Helps

unemployment Hunger donors corporate social investment
Wednesday, 11 April, 2012 - 12:14

South Africa’s socio-economic challenges require corporate social investment strategies that could be easily implemented, monitored and measured

In my keynote address to the 2012 Serious Social Investing workshop, I noted that no singular national corporate social investment (CSI) plan or body can replace the need for well-defined strategies and the nuance of multi-faceted development.

Social investment long ago moved away from the ‘heart of giving’ to the science of strategic social investment. How we go about this on a daily basis may seem challenging at times, especially in a country with such vast needs and opportunities.

Our unemployment level is among the highest in the world, our education system is in crisis, the inequality gap is increasing and our health care system requires strengthening. This means that our most vulnerable people – those with disabilities, the aged, the orphaned, and the destitute – risk having organisations assisting them neglected by funders in favour of education and job creation.

Given these challenges, how are we to most effectively work in social investment to greatest societal benefit? After all, this is a sector of the economy that, despite an overall increase in CSI spend over the last few years, is still affected by funding constraints, whether as a result of a decline in international funding in favour of less developed countries, or inefficiencies and the poor governance and management of funding institutions such as the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund.

But corporate social investment funding will always be limited in comparison to international and governmental budgets. We know that money alone is not the panacea to our social and economic development woes, yet serious questions are being posed about the real impact of individual social investments over the past decade, and the merit of possibly pooling CSI resources in favour of two or three main projects or development sectors.

This thinking comes about partly through an historical lack of transparent and robust monitoring, evaluation, and evidence-based reporting on programme outcomes. Reporting is too often confined to a short write-up in an annual report, and a few statistics on how many teachers were trained, the number of beneficiary organisations supported, or the geographical reach of funding. The emphasis in this sort of reporting tends to ‘look at me philanthropy’ rather than reflect on why some investments do or don’t yield the necessary returns, and what we can learn from this.

The risk of a pooled-resource approach is that it would negatively affect a number of sectors and thus people; whether it be support for our national heritage, promoting the arts, backing individual centres of excellence, or supporting our ailing welfare sector, which would ultimately lose out on critical funding.

Because the needs and opportunities in our country are plentiful, the choices we make need to be guided by strategic, well-intended and realistic objectives and delivery plans. There is no silver bullet for success, and our decisions need to be informed by a myriad of often competing agendas.

And we do have control over the choices we make, the way in which we go about our work, how we put into practice our purpose and our philosophical approach to social investment, and so how we contribute towards shaping our future.

So everything we do needs to be guided by a clearly thought-out strategy. We need to understand the social landscape, understand who is doing what and what interventions already exist, and then strategise about how each individual funder can clearly complement others or fill in gaps.

A well-defined strategy is also a prerequisite for identifying key indicators of success, for ensuring that interventions are carefully monitored and evaluated over a period of time, and so for providing the basis for evidence-based reporting.

This not only strengthens the case for properly managed social investment, but also supports development partners in tracking and strengthening their own work.

Just as important is whether we are able to translate our strategies into real action plans that are carefully monitored and adjusted where needed.

So our strategies may focus on supporting welfare organisations working with the destitute, or may focus on a single sector, or most often be a combination of both. There is not one ‘best way’, nor any evidence suggesting that big, high-risk investments have greater impact than targeted local-scale approaches.

Funding relationships should not only focus on beneficiary partners but also on other funders. Indeed, collaboration is essential in our working environment, but recent calls to formalise this into one national body may well stifle innovative platforms that currently exist, and so reduce efficiencies. Therefore, it’s about how we choose to go about collaborating.

We must guard against overcomplicating the process by creating new bureaucratic structures as opposed to lowering the barriers to effective collaboration and backing self-organised and self-sustaining communities of best practice that already exist.

It is our duty to ensure that our work speaks more clearly to the business imperatives of how we address the educational crisis in meaningful ways, how we support skills training resulting in employment creation, or how food gardens really do improve household security, poverty and inequality.

It is also important that we are able to articulate how our work complements the ideals of the National Development Plan and other government initiatives, in strengthening stakeholder engagement, and supporting licence-to-operate imperatives.

We must always show that our work isn’t just about being ‘the right thing to do’, but rather that ‘we are doing what is right’.

The landscape may seem daunting, the challenges great, and the choices difficult, but among all the clutter lies the magic, many opportunities, and centres of excellence, which, if supported with well-defined strategies backed by sound implementation and monitoring plans, will ensure that we write a history of South Africa that future generations will be proud of.

- Tracey Henry is chief executive officer of Tshikululu Social Investments (TSI). This article first appeared on the TSI website. It is republished here with the permission of TSI.

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