Could The Juggling Act Of South Africa’s CSI Practitioners Be The One That Leaves The Industry Working On Projects That Don’t Really Deliver Impact

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Wouldn’t it be marvellous to bring to our work the same passion and fire that occasionally, just occasionally, we feel after a really stimulating conversation about the state of our nation – or about the state of our city, our church, our family – a conversation in which you suddenly see what needs to be done?

In the juggling act you call your job, do you have those conversations every now and then where your role seems clearer? Where you see where the problem lies, and what you and your team need to do about it? Or are you constantly juggling the concerns of your boss, your board, the person looking over your shoulder, whom you constantly feel nervous about pleasing?

That’s a lot of questions. The point is, we cannot work well (we can work, yes, but not well) without some sense of deep connection with what we’re doing. Far too many of us are concerned about the wrong aspects. As CSI managers, we’re answerable to boards, often composed of older people who have been there for years, and ask all sorts of uncomfortable questions. Some of us are required to meet with our boards weekly, keeping us constantly on our toes. Others of us are outside hires, coming into CSI teams in which many applied for the very position we now hold – and we sense it. We’re jumpy, tense. We have so many balls to keep in the air, and we struggle, at times, to know how we’re really doing. Am I coming on too strong? Can people sense that this is still fairly new to me? How can I keep everyone happy?

It’s a shame that very few people stick around in the job for longer than a few years – just long enough for our CV to reflect that we held the position for a decent number of years. Then we move on. Truth is, you can gain little in-depth knowledge of the work in two or thee years. Compare anyone who has been in CSI for fifteen years or more (if you can find such a person) with the person who has managed a massive budget for perhaps a year or two. You will notice the difference. Newness to the job makes us obsess over technicalities, over ticking boxes. We never develop the depth of understanding of our field, or the distance that is needed, to sift the essentials from the inessentials.

Consider the NPO whose report you just moved aside on your desk – or scrolled quickly through – that little, badly worded, thin-on-facts, plaintive plea for R50 000. You see everything wrong with the request. Not enough detail. Possibly too much detail. No unique selling proposition. You’re inclined to dismiss it – you’ve seen a hundred like it. Occasionally, think about the fact that behind this run-of-the-mill plea for help beats a heart that has risen above circumstances and has done something to better the lot of their community – someone who is doing something right, rather than something wrong.  The person may have suffered a tremendous calamity, and out of that calamity, a community upliftment project was born. 

We know that some of the real powerhouses of community development are not your polished speakers and writers – they are uneducated people who are rising to a challenge. Against all odds, they have started something good. And you hold it within your power to bring hope by dispensing a little grant that will get them started, or sustain a particular project. 

Now the issue of how we monitor and guide that potential recipient of our funding is another matter. Most projects need far more help than they realise with planning, structuring, spending their income wisely and keeping records that will help with future funding applications. Here we could write reams on where funders fail by simply handing out the money but failing to take a close interest in the project. Many of our smaller NGOs and projects need help with the most basic aspects of project management. They could stand to receive regular training on essentials like office management, record keeping, conducting effective meetings, conflict resolution – you name it. There is a strong case for selecting just four or five projects a year and actually investing time and energy with each one. If necessary increasing the grant amount to cover the costs of monthly training sessions. Pay a visit to them, first. Talk to them. Get a feel of how committed they are.

All that aside, for now. The point is, if we lose connection with why we’re here, we’ve become just another one of the many millions who make their money (often exorbitant amounts) from ‘development’. We work away in our office, sometimes long, gruelling hours, but who are we pleasing? The board? Is our week really geared toward making a good board presentation, showing that we’ve complied with the minimum? Where is the deep thinking about what we’re doing? Is this, in fact, the job for us – or do we long to be running a business?

I suggest taking time to really delve deep occasionally. Consider that you’re in the business of building up South Africa. Ultimately, projects expecting handouts year after year is not going to cut it. It won’t change a thing. You, as CSI manager, have the power to use your time and energy to approach those grant applications differently. To consider a change of tactic. Why not invest all your energies this year in fewer organisations, and really ‘walk the road’ with them?  Give them your attention. Slow down, and develop quality, not just quantity. Find way to connect with those parts of your job that really challenge and change you. You’re not here to file fine reports. You’re engaged in the most pressing, most needed, most promising of endeavours, which is to supply the financial and educational energy to small but brilliant ideas – and nurture them so that they really achieve something great.

Just something to think about.

2 Comments

  • Nice piece. Reflective. Great advice….walk the road with them.

    When I saw the headline… my first thought was… ‘The Board’. They can have push-pull effect on projects, and overall success or failures of Ngo. The demands, and strategies that are based on textsbooks and assumptions,, without grassroots realities are fruitless. I will never leave the industry, i will stay in the industry, for the love of my community, I will find another ngo I support. Communities need us more than ever. Let’s keep sharing,: knowledge, support, ideas….

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