Is CSI spend making any difference?

  • 23 December 2014 | Tracey Henry| Opinion

In the corporate social investment (CSI) space, money is not the problem, rather it is how we go about deciding what to support, how we go about this, what outcomes we envisage, how we monitor and evaluate progress, and whether the capacity exists to achieve this.

Tracey Henry

It is becoming customary for those working in the social investment sector to raise, or to be asked, this question: “Billions of rands have been spent over the past decade, but what difference has this made?”

It is not surprising that, 20 years into our young democracy, people are restless, having hoped for more significant transformational change that would address the legacies of an inequitable educational system, huge social inequality and the alarming youth unemployment rate – or “neets” (not in employment, education or training), as these young people are now referred to.

But this comment always leaves me restless and annoyed. Partly because of my upbringing, when we were taught that you need to look at the glass half-full and not half-empty, that there is always something good to come out of a bad situation and that every cloud has a silver lining.

It gives no credit to the non-profit sector, which has continued to contribute in countless ways to the country’s social and economic development, and disregards the significant contribution made by the corporate sector pre-dating any legislation that compelled it to do so.

It negates the partnerships that have been forged between business and the government, which are working to build schools, clinics, upskill teachers, provide anti-retrovirals, preserve our heritage and care for the most vulnerable in our society, to name but a few efforts.

However, it would be foolish simply to disregard the statement, especially given the number of people who express this view. Getting to the heart of “have we made a difference?” requires reflection and perhaps a rethink of how we verbalise our concern for the future.

As is the case with any for-profit business investing in new initiatives, it would be correct to say that not all social investment funding has yielded handsome dividends or changed the lives of people in a profound or positive way. In fact a lot of money has been spent on social investment initiatives, be it by corporates or charitable trusts, that has been ill-considered and at times driven by marketing or legislative requirements rather than developmental agendas.

We also know of bogus non-profits that prey off the misfortune of those in need, and well-regarded celebrity philanthropists who pump money into initiatives for their own needs. These strengthen the agenda of anti-corporate or anti-philanthropic social investment campaigners who believe that individualised investments are ineffective and that pooling all social investment funding into one big pot would be far “better”.

For example, the Department of Social Development has in the past mooted the idea of pooling and managing corporate social investment (CSI) funding for the benefit of the most vulnerable in society. If the belief is that pooled funding managed by the government is the answer, then we have truly missed the boat.

Money is not the problem, rather it is how we go about deciding what to support, how we go about this, what outcomes we envisage, how we monitor and evaluate progress, and whether the capacity exists to achieve this.

Social investments managed by private companies and foundations have the ability to respond swiftly, especially during times of crisis, to ensure that funding reaches those in most need and to hold people accountable for these investments.

During recent weeks alone, emergency funding has been provided by corporates to a number of non-profit organisations that care for children and adults with profound disabilities. Sadly, many of these organisations receive little if any funding from the Department of Social Development or other government entities.

These marginalised organisations that care for the most vulnerable people need support now more than ever before and are to be commended for operating in the most adverse circumstances. Anyone that believes that this funding is not making a difference needs to spend a couple of hours at any of these organisations to appreciate the impact they have.

It could be argued that these efforts are just hand-outs, that this type of investment is not systemic and isn’t getting to the root of the cause, and that if you calculate the social return on investment formula it doesn’t provide a compelling business case for investors or other stakeholders. However, tell that to a child who doesn’t know where the next meal will come from, or a bed-ridden and terminally ill patient who needs the care of a community-based health worker to change nappies, to feed him or her and tend to bed sores.

Yes, this does pull at the heart strings, but we are talking about real people, who desperately need the ongoing support of funders, be it corporates, charitable trusts or the government. The sad reality is that these welfare or charitable organisations are being marginalised by funders who feel constrained rather to support initiatives that are aligned to the B-BBEE codes.

While I agree that we do need to invest wisely to create real jobs that promote economic development, especially for our youth, I do wonder how we can really build a great nation if all the other spheres of development are neglected. We know that from conception nutrition is a key determinate of a child’s development, that the provision of basic health services is a human right, that the care and protection of children and women who are the victims of physical and sexual abuse cannot be left to the government alone to deal with effectively due to capacity constraints, and that we cannot aspire to be a world-class nation if we neglect the promotion of the arts, the sciences and our rich and diverse heritage. 

Individual funders play a vital role in building the fabric of our society and should continue to do so. However, my aversion to the idea of mass pooled funding should not be confused with the need for funders to collaborate and develop partnerships in areas of mutual interest. 

There are numerous examples of corporates and other funders that have a shared vision and collaborate in order to leverage funding, share lessons learnt and look to improve the way we support the social and economic needs of our country. This is particularly prevalent in the education sector.

Funders are now more open to the idea of joint funding partnerships, supporting flagships projects that can potentially be taken to scale and that work in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education. However, there are no quick fixes and the outcome of these interventions will probably only be felt in a decade or so.

It is vital that funders continue to support educational interventions that do work, where there is evidence of an improvement in teaching and educational outcomes, and that these positive changes are celebrated. Funders also need the courage to withdraw funding, in a responsible way, from long-term non-profit organisations that, despite good intentions, are not able to provide evidence of educational improvements.

So can we categorically state that billions of rands have been wasted over the past decade? Indeed not! Some investments have been wasteful, some investments have been squandered or misappropriated, and some investments have been hampered by poor management, changes in policies and the withdrawal of operational funding.

But don’t negate the fact that the private and non-profit sector have lead numerous successful campaigns to ensure, among others, the provision of anti-retrovirals, pioneered models for the care of orphaned and vulnerable children, supported thousands of amazing young people who would otherwise not have been given the opportunity to further their studies and in so doing contributed to the economy of the country and the families they support, not to mention the funding provided to hundreds of medical professionals and primary health care workers who work to strengthen the public health sector.

As 2014 draws to an end it is a good time to reflect on what we have achieved and what we need to improve on in the social investment sector, but also the conversations we want to engage on in 2015 about new opportunities that will contribute towards a thriving South Africa in which all its people will flourish in time to come.

Tracey Henry is the chief executive of Tshikululu Social Investments, and a member of the judging panel of the Mail & Guardian Investing in the Future and Southern Africa Trust Drivers of Change award.

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