Accountability And CSI Boards: Who Needs Them, Anyway?

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In conversation some time ago, our Senior Editor asked, ‘When are you going to write another hard-hitting article that makes us all think?’  I have never wanted to write articles for the sake of writing articles.  But I believe this one addresses something that really burns, or at any rate glows, on the back burner of every CSI manager across the country:

‘Why do I need to be answerable to CSI board made up of people outside of CSI who invariably know little about the day-to-day realities I face, and yet have authority to veto my ideas – and considerably slow me down?’

Are CSI boards really necessary? I honestly ask this, in view of my own experiences of being answerable to a board several years ago.

An experience I had recently confirmed the value of the question. One of the things we do as CSRNEWS Africa is write CSI reports for busy CSI execs – we attend their activations, events, programmes, roadshows or community meetings with them, observe, take notes, and produce informative, comprehensive and well-written reports that can be tweaked, if necessary, but on the whole are ready to be submitted to boards.

So there we were, attending an activation with our client, a CSI Head, and the Chairperson of his CSI board. Also in attendance was a certain Minister, who asked who would be presenting an address to represent the company. The CSI Head replied that the Chairperson would.

To which the Minister replied ‘But aren’t you the CSI Head?’ Turning to the Chairperson, he asked, ‘Who are you then?’ The Chairperson identified himself. At which the Minister looked confused and said, ‘Well, how does this work?’ Turning to the CSI Head, he said, ‘So … you’re like the CEO and (to the Chairperson) you’re like the chairperson of a company board?’

To which the two replied yes, this was the case. Now if the best of minds finds this relationship confusing, and wonders at the need for both positions, how much more the ordinary CSI or NGO Manager, who must constantly seek board approval for simple decisions. We have seen how in times of crisis, this requirement makes organisations unwieldy, clumsy and slow to respond. 

Some organisations were still scrambling in September to approve plans to help victims of looting in July. This dragging of the feet is almost always attributable to the need to get broad approval for everything.

I’m sure you’re thinking ‘We need boards for accountability!’ But accountability can be ensured in other ways. NGOs are accountable to their funders for every cent they spend. They’re also accountable to auditors. If they were not, the NGO would quickly cease to exist.

Robert Kiyosaki, who happens to be my financial guru, said something along these lines about another group of middlemen – brokers. ‘I fail to understand,’ he said, ‘Why people make money all their lives and then trust it all to a person called a broker.’  I mean the financial advisors’ name should say it all: ‘broke-r’.

Similarly, I fail to understand why companies and NGOs need the advice of people who are not steeped in the daily work of CSI, who are appointed from outside to oversee their activities, and know little about life ‘in the trenches’. The NGO Manager usually has to raise the finances for the NGO, but then must account to outsiders for how it is spent. Doesn’t make sense to me.

One might argue that it is simply conventional or traditional to have a board. It’s the way CSI and NGOs have always worked.  Tradition! I don’t have much time for it in business. The CEO of Nokia, Steve Ballmer, admitted that failure to change with the times cost Nokia its independence. When Nokia was bought out by Microsoft, he said, ‘We did nothing wrong, but somehow we lost.’  He was saying that they had failed to read the times, failed to adapt to progress in the market. 

CSI the world over is progressing and if we are to understand the industry that is emerging all around us, we need to ask ourselves pertinent and powerful questions. 

Do we really need CSI boards in large companies and in NGOs, in an era when things change so quickly, crises erupt at the drop of a hat, and managers have to move nimbly? 

To me the burning question is really, ‘What is the kind of community responsiveness we want to build in companies and organisations in the 21st century? Is the current CSI business model sustainable? Is our model helping or hindering the closeness that ought to exist between an organisation and the society it serves?’

Myles Munroe says we should be proactive in the face of change, not reactive. I think the time has come to question the value of NGO boards and CSI boards in large companies. 

Kiyosaki said, ‘Why should I work hard so that someone who has no clue how I got here can advise where my money should go?’ I say, ’Why should CSI and NGO Managers raise the capital, consult with the community, develop the essential relationships, and then have  to invite a group of people called a board to tell them  how to spend the money they raised?’

I hope to have a more in-depth discussion on this topic, as I’d really love to hear your views! My view: CSI boards have had their day. Another model needs to be devised for quick responsiveness and accountability.

Simphiwe Mtetwa
Simphiwe Mtetwa is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief for Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa.

1 Comment

  • Sarah Hugow says:

    Interesting idea! Maybe it has something to do with how boards function, and how they understand their role. Boards should provide thoughtful, considered strategic guidance and governance oversight. They should not be involved in day-to-day operational decision making. Set the vision, create the conditions for the CSI program to flourish, trust that the Manager can do the job, and then get out of the way. Why hire someone you don’t trust? The quality of the relationship with the CSI Manager will determine the functionality of the Board.

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