Several years ago, I worked for one of South Africa’s parastatals through an agency, managing CSI programmes. Our combined budget was ZAR15 million a year. Because it was a parastatal, it was impressed upon us that we had to pay organisations and suppliers promptly. Not to do so would have resulted in the collapse of many of these small businesses and NGOs. The prompt disbursement of money also reflected well on my appraisal report and helped determine whether or not I received a 13th cheque. The job was more strenuous than it sounds. Meetings started at 06:00 am and there were times when I’d leave the office at 4:00 am, to be back at the office at 08:00 am. The job was tough, but I loved it at first, because I was making a difference.
The more I got to understand how things worked, the harder the job became. I had a mandate to fulfil, and a status meeting every Thursday, where I accounted sometimes to a room full of up to 20 people. Progress had to be made and reported on. I spent a lot of time scouting suppliers and NGOs to do tasks that would both fulfil our requirements and boost the supplier, so that the parastatal could show its positive impact on the community. Will you believe me when I say that 90% of the time, I would not find a single reliable NGO or NPO with which to work? My workload was enormous, and I did not have the time to thoroughly appraise each NGO or NPO, or to mentor them. I needed our suppliers to be on the ball, to have systems in place, to be reliable, to call back when they said they would, to speak the language of business to a sufficient extent that they could understand deadlines, quantities and issues of quality.
Money to give
My boss came to me one Tuesday morning and said, ‘find an NGO with a national footprint and award them ZAR300 000.’ With a bonanza like that to offer, I was frustrated beyond belief to find that not one NGO I knew of was contactable. Numbers I dialled did not exist, websites were terrible – everything written on the sites was disastrous and incomprehensible – and no one answered. The pressure was immense; my boss reported to his boss, who reported to the Minister, and they all wanted a simple enough task done – to give away ZAR300 000, fast. When I finally did get through to a couple of NGOs, the answering of calls was unprofessional to say the least. Phones were answered with, ‘Y’ello?’ followed by screams of ‘someone here wants to speak to the person that deals with funding!’ (in Zulu or Sesotho). Then I’d be told that I couldn’t have the relevant person’s cell phone number because they did not want calls to their cell phone. What?
This is an NGO I am talking to, where the whole purpose is to assist communities. They don’t want to be called on their cell phone. I wanted to help the little guys, the organisations on the ground, the ones mostly overlooked because they lacked the big budgets and the sophistication. But this was too much. In the end I called a friend who called a friend, who knew of a reliable NGO that we could work with – the likes of AfrikaTikkun, Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, New Jerusalem, Symphonia and a handful of others.
‘Those who have, receive more.’
And this is why CSI Managers end up gravitating over and over again to the same handful of big NGOs. They have up-to-date, user-friendly websites, they submit financial reports, and they have trained personnel who identify with the core functions of the NGO and are able to respond appropriately to out-of-the-ordinary requests. They are available. They attend conferences. They stay learning. They monitor their own progress, asking, how can we offer our services better, more efficiently? They tend not to moan that times are hard – because they are always hard at work. Instead they’ll say something like, ‘We’ve been sending proposals here and there and getting no response – what are we not doing right? How can we improve?’
Once, in speaking to the director of one of the smaller NGOs, I referred in passing to a donation given to one of the big ones. She broke in, somewhat bitterly, ‘Ja … the NGOs that always get the funding.’ One has to ask, ‘Why do they always get the funding?’
NGOs need to understand a little more about the pressures that CSI managers are under. My situation was not uncommon. I had 48 hours in which to dispose of money to a worthy and responsible NGO. I needed to move fast, but I was not willing to throw it away on an ill-prepared organisation. Efficiency was what I was looking for; someone who grasped the urgency and could rise to the occasion with a plan already in place. CSI managers do find themselves in this position occasionally, rightly or wrongly.
Can NGO and CSI managers cross the great divide that separates them? They can, but both sides have a long way to go. As recently as our September 2019 Funders Round, I called NGOs and NPOs myself, because in inviting them to events like this I get a sense of where they’re at. I get to gauge the level of professionalism, the openness to new ideas, the sense of connection with the real world. I must say we are certainly not there yet.
Where to from here?
NGO and NPOs, please revisit your modus operandi. What you put in is always what you get out. When you submit proposals, get someone to check them. Weed out the errors. Get help with structuring proposals so that the reader has a clue and can discern the priorities. Spell the names right. Do the sums right. These are obvious, but honestly, get it right.
When you call a corporate and ask to speak to the CSI manager, know the name. Don’t say, ‘Can I speak to Simelane?’ ‘Which Simelane? This is a big organisation, can you give me a surname?’ ‘I don’t know, it’s just written Simelane.’
Bad answer. It shows you’ve not done your homework, you haven’t checked the internet or read a report, you know nothing before you cold called. How can you expect me to partner with you when you don’t do your part? CSI managers are business people working under pressure. In many cases they care little about the details of your project. When I handed out a thousand pairs of shoes at a Mandela Day event, I was less concerned about the individual stories of every child than the overall picture – had we got the sizes right? Would every child get a pair? These are logistical issues, and these are what concern the mind of the man or woman making decisions about huge sums of money.
Many CSI Managers work from 6:00 am to 21:00 pm. This thing of NGOs in South Africa working from 09:00 am to 16:00 pm makes absolutely no sense to me. People who work these hours in my opinion are family foundations – steeped in millions and some billions of rands or dollars. You, the NGO or NPO, should work at least from 08:00 am to 17:00 pm. Your fundraising manager’s cell number should be on your website, and the phone switched on and charged during all working hours. Answer it when it rings. In my parastatal days we were told not to allow the phone to ring more than three times, and always to return calls when we missed them.
On your website, have a page called Resources, where you show your short and crisp proposal, cancelled cheque or letter from the bank, your BEE Certificate, your NPO number, your most recent annual report, a letter of good standing from SARS, minutes from your most recent meetings, your active funders and your basic general purpose.
There is a lovely saying: What is the definition of insanity? (I am sure you know the answer – ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result’.)
Think about some of the ways your NGO presents itself, and consider whether a few well-chosen changes might not greatly boost your chances of success. The relationship between funders and NGOs and NPOs need not be fraught with difficulties; each side simply needs to understand the priorities and needs of the other, and adapt where necessary.