The COVID-19 pandemic – and other, recent crises – left a trail of casualties all across South Africa, from impoverished communities to the national economy. However, in terms of CSI, it stimulated a faster response to crises and greater involvement of people in general. The challenge now is to ensure that companies’ CSI strategies continue to become more agile and responsive to critical needs, instead of remaining set in less flexible policies.
Nicole Solomon, Group CSI Manager at AECI, points out that “South Africa needs agile and responsive CSI strategies to adapt to our country’s changing landscape. In the last two years, South Africa, together with the rest of the world, experienced unprecedented challenges. It started with the COVID-19 pandemic; then there were the looting, fires and, most recently, the flooding in KwaZulu-Natal. These crises and others have led to permanent changes in how companies are viewing their CSI strategies.”
CSI strategies have evolved throughout the years. The days of organisations merely donating to charities or charitable causes are long gone. Most organisations have become much more strategic, and their CSI funding and initiatives reflect this. Forming strategic partnerships, measuring their impact and aligning their strategies with national goals are at the core of most CSI strategies. This is certainly a more effective way of ensuring that CSI goals are met; however, strategies also need to be flexible. Organisations should be able to adjust their strategies quickly and effectively when a crisis arises.
Before COVID-19, most companies’ CSI strategies were pretty much set in stone and companies would seldom deviate from their CSI focus areas. However, this also meant that there was little room for sudden and unexpected change. If a new cause or crisis landed on a CSI practitioner’s desk, they had to fight through a huge amount of red tape to respond. This hindered their progress and slowed down their response time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, to a large degree, changed the way the industry reacts to crises. In response to the pandemic, organisations had to abandon their ‘set-in-stone’ strategies and make adjustment to suit a new and changing landscape, which meant that new goals had to be set in very little time. Funding meant for other causes was now redirected to COVID-19 emergency response measures. Despite the red tape, the industry responded quickly, but many mistakes were made. These include duplication in food relief initiatives and the abandonment of other, existing programmes that needed just as much attention.
“It was a huge learning curve which, in many ways, is transforming the industry,” comments Solomon. “Companies are reconsidering the role that CSI plays in their businesses, with the realisation that CSI initiatives need to be integrated with every aspect of their businesses.”
For example, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t only affect the weak and the vulnerable members of our society; it also crippled businesses and affected people from underprivileged as well as privileged backgrounds. CSI departments, in many cases, spearheaded crisis management strategies and helped their companies as well as communities respond to and manage the crisis. COVID-19 was an equaliser in many ways – many people who were able to take care of themselves before the pandemic suddenly found themselves depending on others. There was a huge need, but limited resources.
Looking at South Africa’s vast and ongoing socio-economic needs, it is not only government and the private sector who need to take action. This was again highlighted by the recent crises.
“We learned that everyone, not only organisations, but also individuals, have the power to make a difference,” says Solomon. “Former US president Theodore Roosevelt said it best: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’”
As South Africans have been experiencing crisis after crisis, it is often ordinary citizens who show up and make a difference. For example, during the looting, South Africans spontaneously came together and started cleaning up the streets and businesses that had suffered destruction. These efforts were, in many cases, not CSI initiatives, but the actions of ordinary citizens wanting to make a difference.
Making a difference in our country is, in fact, the responsibility of every South African. Employee volunteerism has been highlighted and prioritised by organisations, and this is also a priority at AECI, says Solomon.
“We encourage our employees to donate a percentage of their salaries to the causes that our company supports, including food security in vulnerable communities as well as education. Our company is at the forefront of developing and seeking technological solutions that support sustainable development, especially in the mining, farming and food industries. We also have a special interest in protecting water and food security.
“We also care about the communities in which we operate, and most of our CSI funding supports these communities. Going a step further, our employees are also encouraged to make a difference in these communities.
“I believe that CSI in South Africa is on the right track. However, the work is never done and the need in our country is increasing. We need to ensure that CSI strategies are agile and adaptable, and that we embrace solutions that can effect real change and ensure that we are ready to face any crisis that may arise.”