Not All Corporate Giving Needs Heart

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In the last 24 months or so, I lost both my grandparents and uncle, a pain unbearable to most – my grandparents were in effect my parents and my uncle was my brother.  I was given the task of choosing their tombstones. The combined price of the tombstones that made sense to me came to ZAR 300 thousand. I had inherited this money from my grandparents and felt that this expense was warranted, in view of how much they meant to me.

However, the rest of my family opposed the idea, thinking it a waste. I was very upset with them.

‘How can they tell me what to do with my money?’ I fumed. ‘This is my money, which I got from my own grandparents. Surely, I should be free to do with it what I choose to do!’ I really felt they were imposing their priorities on mine, and did not respect my choice. They kept saying that my R300 thousand could be put to better use. Better use? For me, this was better use – this was how I wished to show my love and respect.

This made me think about CSI in South Africa and the fact that I still marvel at how people can tell other people what to do with their money. Social activists, some NGOs, and society in general are continually telling corporates what to do with their money.  Why?

‘You could put this money to better use, you must do your due diligence – look at all these issue you’re not paying attention to!’  And so on and so on. As if these corporates got to where they are today by not doing due diligence, not paying attention to the things that matter to them.

When all is said and done, why do businesses exist? To make money. There is nothing wrong with that. Most people start businesses to make money, and no amount of social pressure is going to detract from that overarching goal. Now, in South Africa, the Companies Act, the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, and the regulations of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange make it mandatory that companies plough back 1% net after profit into social upliftment programmes designed to raise the quality of life for all South Africans. That is an obligation, not a choice; companies are well aware of it and don’t need anyone telling them how exactly that 1% ought to be spent.

They certainly don’t need to respond to the continual pressure to have big hearts. Honestly, if all our corporates could just meet the basic obligation to give back 1%, that is more than enough as far as I am concerned. There are still many who don’t, or who find wily ways to massage their giving so that it looks far more impressive than it really is, purely because someone has told them to have heart.

I say, ‘Nope, you don’t have to have heart to give.’ If they are fulfilling their legal obligation to give the full 1% net after profit, neither you nor I, nor any NGO, has the right to demand more of them.  If they have heart great, but this should not be the benchmark to great CSI.

Not steeped in compassion
I personally think we need to stop expecting companies to be all heart in their giving! They didn’t get where they are today by being steeped in compassion – they got to that billion-rand turnover by being many other things, including shrewd, strategic and intelligent. They’re not going to throw away that 100 million that constitutes 1% on NGOs and programmes that promise to change the world but have little to back up their claims. Rest assured they will use the same strategic approach to giving that they used to get them where they are today. And that is their right.

Your job as an NGO or social activist hoping to receive some of that mandatory assistance is to be the best you can be.  Focus on you, and the programmes or projects you bring to the community you serve.  Keep your nose out of corporate funding and focus on your programmes – and the corporates will come to you.

Companies don’t have an obligation to give to you, and they don’t have to demonstrate how caring they are to you. They just have to do what they are required to do.

No right to penalise
Of course, some companies go beyond the minimum requirements, making a greater contribution by using small suppliers and service providers, offering health and education programmes to workers, funding bursaries, and implementing a host of other development-oriented initiatives. The point here is, we have no right to penalise every other company for not doing as much as these champions of change do.

The reality is that companies haveto engage in CSI. They know that. The way they do that is to outsource to NGOs or any social entities they see fit to partner with. No special heart is needed.

This is where I and some of my colleagues in CSI differ. Many believe that as a business, I should be all heart. I was born into an NGO home; my grandmother’s foundation still supports millions, two years after her death, and trust me, I have compassion for NGOs.  However, I have been in CSI long enough to know that in fact ‘head’ – thinking, planning, choosing partners wisely – will get far more accomplished than heart.  

It’s about project management
When you enter CSI, you enter a project management world. It is that simple.  CSI managers manage projects through NGO partners who have been tasked with doing the work. They don’t need to be closely involved; they just have to spend the full 1% net after profit on partners who know what they are doing. Above this, don’t expect the world.

That does not mean that corporate giving has to become a tick-box exercise. However, if, for some companies, it is just a tick-box exercise, so be it! Why should they be chastised for doing what they are required to do and no more? They don’t exist as a charity.

In my view, NGOs, which exist to make real and lasting improvement to the social fabric, need to focus on what they do best and let corporates focus on what they do best. It is the NGOs, not the corporates, which need to have heart – along with a cool head, plenty of determination and grit and excellent planning and strategy, in order to win that support they hope for from corporate CSI.

No one is obligated to support you. You will only win the funding by being the best at what you do, thinking long term, and being able to demonstrate lasting impact. Then you will make a fitting partner for a company that is not in the habit of throwing money away, and knows how to assess what you really are, not what you say you are.

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

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