The South African CSI Revolution Has Come – How Do You Know When You Are In The Middle Of A Revolution?

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Revolution, decision making and that still, small voice.

How do you know when you are in the middle of a revolution? Revolutions are times of dramatic change, but they are not always rapid, or accompanied by guillotines and angry mobs. They are not always political, but they are transformational. And transformation is something we as CSI practitioners ought to be deeply invested in.

Revolution means a 180-degree turnaround in the way things are done. It is highly likely that the CSI space is undergoing a process of transformation – whether this turns out to be a revolution or not remains to be seen. Programmes like The Great Funders Conference have revealed incredible levels of interest in all things CSI – we are all hungry for change, for the shot in the arm that will infuse life, energy and direction to the social responsibility work that we do.

Gatherings like this conference galvanise people into action, and action is what we need. The transformation of our country will not happen without well-resourced, well-planned and dedicated groups of people working to effect change. We have such groups in our NPOs and NGOs; all our funders need do is catch the spirit of the transformation underway and commit their financial muscle to the process. In the correct pairing of funders and fieldworkers, we may yet see the revolution so needed!

Today, however, I focus on a revolution of a more personal nature – the rapidly unfolding revolution that is taking place within CSRNEWSSA.  Our last three years has seen such dramatic, unsettling change that many who started the journey were not able to stick with it. We’ve gained and lost staff, moved offices three times, adopted and thrown out strategies, and at times taken on far more than we were able to chew at once. The time of turmoil, however, has borne fruit. Rather than accepting flawed systems and strategies, we dug deep and disrupted; we disturbed appearances to uncover something better; we rattled and shook until only the solid and valuable things remained. We’re now in a place where the organisation is lean, highly efficient and functions like a well-oiled machine. The disruption has been worth it.


Small beginnings
If I told you I do this job for love, I wonder if you’d be sceptical? How many of us truly put love and passion before money? When I took on this role, CSRNEWSSA was practically unheard of. I took a 50% pay cut to step in and make something of it.  Having served in the CSI space since I was twelve years old – typing proposals for my grandmother, who founded a thriving NGO – I wanted to create something new, something that would affect all NGOs, and not just one. Money was not the issue – I knew that if I did what I love, the money would follow.

I began by changing the logo and website, and expanding our reach for gathering and publishing CSI-related news. I met with CSI managers and NGO leaders at every opportunity, listening, gathering data, and piecing together a picture of the great chasm that existed and, in many cases, still exists between these two critical drivers of social change in South Africa. I read voraciously and I thought. My goal was to draw these parties together, to see each side bring out the best in the other. To this end, I hired staff – and lost them almost as fast as I gained them. It’s not easy working for a rapidly changing organisation where one person is carried by a vision he can hardly contain; not everyone catches the vision.

Through it all I listened to one thing; that still, small voice inside that was like a rudder or a GPS, giving me sound, reliable guidance at every crossroads. And there were many. At times my staff and I would get into arguments.

‘You can’t be serious!’ cried one over a decision I made to move offices for the second time in six months. But I was adamant; we were going to do this on a lean budget and make it work. We thrashed out strategy, plans, budgets and priorities and our conversations were not always linear and straightforward. It was a hard, circuitous process. I knew we needed a revolution to get to where we needed to be, but revolutions are never comfortable places. People left because they could not take the pace of change. I let them go in peace.

In the midst of the turmoil, I noticed that the financials reflected a different picture – we had not slackened, but increased.  Investors who had committed to the first year were happy to continue backing, and we moved on.  At the end November of 2017 the last of my original team left. I was determined, and carried the load on my own for a while, until that small voice directed me in the way I should go – freelancers.

In choosing the freelancer model I believe I was not only divinely guided but also aligning with a global move to independent, contractual work where skilled people sell their services on a project-to-project basis. This model for business engagement ensures that the buyer of the service gets quality work and nothing else, and the seller gets a fair price and personal freedom, to boot.

Now CSRNEWSSA employs a team of superb professionals, who fulfill all operational functions from sales and advertising to accounting, legal and editorial work. Working on a strict KPI basis has ensured that our overheads are minimal, our work is fast-paced and professional, and everyone who contributes does so because the model works in their favour.

Sales have increased and projects diversified. CSRNEWSSA is rapidly consolidating and expanding its sphere of influence in the CSI space.

To close: I’ve always loved 1 Kings 17, vs 13-16, which tells of a woman who had nothing and was instructed by Elijah to use the little oil and flour she had to make something. God blessed her small beginnings, and her obedience resulted in an abundant outpouring of everything she needed to sustain life. I find the parallels obvious.

And to answer that first question: How do you know when you’re in the middle of a revolution? You know it when your foundations are shaken, the familiar disappears and you’re thrust right out of your comfort zone. In the midst of that turmoil, positive change is coming – if you find your rudder and stick with it. For me that rudder was the unfailing Word of God, and that still, small voice which guided me through the storm. CSRNEWSSA has come out the other side stronger, wiser and more capable than before.

I wish the same for you in whatever personal revolution you find yourself in now.

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

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