Several years ago, I sat with a huge financial institution discussing a Maths and Science programme they had initiated in high schools in Gauteng. After ten years, only one learner out of hundreds had completed the programme, and even she had no intention of studying for a STEM career (Science, Technology, Engineering and Science) after school. One learner out of hundreds! I’d call that a massive failure of a programme.
Last year I began seriously questioning why CSI has not achieved the meaningful impact that companies intend. Think about it: In schools, donated computers are stolen, container libraries are bereft of books, ablution facilities are clogged and unusable, and science labs remain locked, no one having bought the supplies necessary for experiments.
Come back a year after any major donation and you will generally be appalled at what you find.
We tried a new approach
At one stage, NGOs and CSI managers came to understand that the problem originated in the way we engaged with communities. We were too top down, we were told, and needed to listen more. We needed to stop being the ‘experts’ who told the community what they needed. ‘Nothing for them without them,’ became the new tag line.
The idea had tremendous appeal and companies began to employ black persons to go into communities and ‘engage’. Social workers and local NGOs were mobilised, lengthy community meetings were held, and community boards were formed. The term ‘advocacy’ was born. This whole new way of interacting with communities promised great results because now, we believed, communities were leading the way.
But what did the statistics show? Donated facilities met the same fate as before, employment dwindled, poverty and inequality skyrocketed. Community structures were vandalised, million-rand computers stolen and libraries became repositories of broken furniture.
Where did we go wrong? The first approach was unilateral and top-down, the second approach listened and engaged, but the results were identical.
The scale of the problem
In 2017, Trialogue reported that corporate South Africa had spent R137 billion on projects since 1997. Extending the figures to 1994 and 2020, corporate SA has probably spent R155 billion on efforts to relieve, improve and uplift under-resourced communities.
What have we to show for it?
The problem of the carrot
The problem, I believe, lies with a way of thinking that permeates South African society, and has done since government first started luring people to rallies with offers of free transport, T-shirts and meals.
It is the idea that people need a ‘carrot’ in order to move.
It is the idea that people have no will or ability of their own, but must be cossetted with gifts in order to get anything done. The conviction that government and businesses owe people compensation for their hardships, and that without compensation, enticements and rewards, no one will make any effort to improve their lot and, where possible, will strike.
Unfortunately, CSI departments have fallen into this way of thinking. We unintentionally undermine people and their abilities, expecting too little of them. No independent thought or sacrifice is expected of our community partners.
We are still steeped in institutionalised ‘old school’ thinking
Institutionalised old school thinking
Old school thinking is hierarchical. The ‘king’ determines what the subjects need. The king regards the recipients as passive, in need, and too under-resourced to do much for themselves. In CSI, this thinking prevails, along with a subtle, unspoken conviction that programmes must be packed with participants to be deemed successful.
‘Entice them with gifts’ has become the natural corollary of a culture that emphasises people’s rights and not their abilities or responsibilities. Government has given and promised people so much that what was once a gift has now become a right in the minds of many.
This way of thinking wreaks havoc in the CSI industry. CSI managers believe they have to
incentivise recipients for the success of their projects. They’re engaging in the corporate equivalent of free gifts for rally attendance. Why? Because they want the numbers, just as political parties do. I think this fixation with numbers is a big part of the problem.
Lower numbers, greater impact
At a recent meeting I attended, a company was discussing an online conference for youth. The old school, ‘dazzle them with gifts’ approach was that not only should the company create the platform, it should also provide the data. ‘Give a thousand learners R60 data each!’ was the prevailing idea. I objected. Let people sacrifice to be there, I said – let them come up with their own data. To which others objected, ‘What if only ten turn up?’
‘Fine!’ I said. ‘Then ten turn up. These will be ten who really want to be there – not the thousand who want the left-over data for their own uses and a chance to put the conference on their CVs.’
We should not develop programmes to pack the numbers in – that is why they fail, in my opinion. We pack them in because that looks better, and we’re afraid to fail.
Let’s stop being afraid our project will not look exactly as we imagined it to be. Forget the numbers for now – strive to make a real impact with people who really want what you offer and who will take ownership of it by their own free will. This is the way to get lasting results.
New school thinking
New school thinking takes a broad and contextual approach. Managers seek to understand their own and their company’s blind spots before they launch new programmes. They critically assess the design of their programmes and the assumptions made in boardrooms, where so many programmes are borne, premised on faulty assumptions.
Three questions shape the design of a great CSI programme:
- What does the programme entail?
- Who does it target?
- How do we best reach that target group?
Then plan far more thoroughly than you have been doing. It is in the planning stage that so many programmes fail. You make too many assumptions; for instance, that a school principal will know the best way to select participants in your educational programme.
Do the learners themselves want to be in it? Do they have to sacrifice anything to be in it? Or is foisted on them? Examine the very foundations of your programme in every detail, bearing in mind that for many schools, partnering with a multi-million rand company has status appeal.
And don’t be afraid to fail. Henry Ford said something I now live by: ‘Don’t be afraid to fail. The problem with wise and learned people is that they reason too much. While they were busy deliberating and reasoning, we were busy building cars and learning from our failures.’
What a great attitude. CSI managers, you will make mistakes, but plunge in anyway, having done your careful planning. Try innovative ideas, have a willingness to learn and forget the obsession with numbers. You don’t have to lure people in with gifts, because if you do, the entire structure is premised on a faulty assumption – that people need gifts in order to participate. They don’t! If your programme is good, they will want it, and will be prepared to sacrifice to participate in it.
Let’s ditch the idea that free gifts motivate people. They don’t – or they do for the short-term, but give it six months and that external motivation will have lost its power. Find ways to reach people at a deeper level – where their intrinsic motivation lies. If you have something good, and that people see the value of, they will come.
In fact, think of your programme as a brand-new packet of chips that no one knows about. Having developed an excellent product, all you need do is advertise it, sit back, and wait.