CSI must change gear to confront the new reality

Here is an article I wrote for the publication, “CSI: The Human Face of Business” which was included in the Financial Mail during October 2020. 

Back in January, most businesses were pursuing a Corporate Social Investment (CSI) strategy which had been fine-tuned over the years. Then the pandemic hit South Africa in late March. Everything changed. CSI activities pivoted, refocused and were fueled by adrenaline and empathy. CSI entered crisis mode.

Departments responsible for CSI quickly learnt how to operate remotely without the normal field engagements. They had to design new models for supporting their projects and the non-profit organisations that they worked with. They had to engage with beneficiaries and communities within the restrictions placed on face-to-face contact and the provision of normal services.

In the main, CSI beneficiaries were either struggling to operate under lockdown or had seen an increased demand for their services dependent on what they did. CSI was put into a position of trying to mitigate the harm caused by the pandemic in areas such as domestic violence, food insecurity, homelessness and unemployment.

Remarkable achievements took place during this period. It showcased how influential business can be when resources are focused on a social problem.

According to Vusani Malie, the CEO of SIOC-CDT: “Our first focus was to keep our employees safe, so we had to insist on complete lockdown of our workplaces. Then we teamed up with Kumba Iron Ore and focused on hunger-relief and food parcels, and later the provision of PPE and medical equipment. We also realised we had to support digital learning in poorer communities, where learners and teachers didn’t have access to tablets, laptops and connectivity.”

SIOC-CDT was already working within the beneficiary communities, but their existing programmes had to be adapted almost overnight, with new programmes fast-tracked and implemented at an exponential pace in collaboration with provincial municipalities and Government institutions.

A focus for many CSI initiatives was frequently children. Warren Farrer, the Executive Director of Do More Foundation says, “When Covid-19 hit us, because of our passion around children, we noticed that children were no longer accessing food through ECD centres and schools. For many children, this is the only meal of the day. We worked with our partners to provide 7 million fortified meals from the onset of lockdown to now.”

As we reach lockdown Level 1 on the 21st September, our “new normal” comes into play. We embark as a country on a new way of living beside the virus instead of hiding away from it. It is hoped though that the lessons learnt during the pandemic stay. That the engagement with beneficiaries continues.

Businesses have a clearer picture of how their CSI beneficiaries have been affected by the pandemic and lockdown. They can realistically assess the stark reality of the social, economic and environmental problems that are confronting South Africans. Says Malie, “I visited our beneficiary communities over the weekend, and it was very bleak. We don’t want things to collapse. In the future, we will focus much more on social welfare. Our communities are still in shock. Problems of poverty and hunger will still be with us for a while.”

According to Farrer: “The hunger situation in our country will be with us for a very long time. While food was not a major thing for us, that will have to scale up.”

Furthermore, businesses are also assessing the state of CSI budgets. Many must do more with less. The corporate sector is re-orientating themselves with less staff, vast infrastructure changes and new focuses. Their budgets are slashed.

But CSI strategies should be different from those of previous years. Here are four propositions to consider when revising yours.

CSI should contain a mix of charitable interventions aimed at alleviating suffering, and philanthropic interventions aimed at tackling underlying problems.

CSI should not only provide funding; it should also use some of the expertise that exists in your business. The strategy might also consider strengthening the beneficiary non-profit organisations. These will help ensure that CSI projects are successful.

CSI should be laser focused. Businesses have insufficient resources to fix all the problems in their beneficiary communities. There are too many problems to confront. Rather they should do the work that they are best positioned to do. This is the only way that they will be able to have a meaningful impact.

CSI should involve partnerships with other businesses. This will provide more rounded interventions.

“I think corporates can play a far bigger and more powerful role, and use their capabilities, bargaining power and influence for social good,” says Farrer.  “Everything we do is based on partnerships and collaboration, and what we’ve managed to do over the past few months is testament to this.”

Businesses can revise their CSI strategies to provide a coherent approach to the emerging future. But most importantly, businesses can retain hope that their CSI efforts will ultimately prevail in their efforts to make South Africa into a better place for all.

As Malie believes: “I think things will turn around. I think there are opportunities. We are very fortunate in that.”

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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