The joy of sharing

Best Corporate Employee Community ­Involvement Programme
FNB Commercial Banking, Life Skills and Mentorship Programme

Today's young people can become tomorrow's ­entrepreneurs, but raw talent needs careful ­mentoring and support if it is to survive and thrive. That is the thinking behind FNB's Life Skills and Mentorship Programme, run in partnership with Junior Achievement South Africa.

The programme, which began in 2006, consists of an eight-month training course offered to young ­people from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Most come from underprivileged backgrounds, although ­students from other ­communities also participate. So far 356 students have ­graduated, and another 150 are now in training. Their food and transport costs are covered, which ensures that there is a high rate of attendance.

The programme is run by FNB volunteers from different departments who enjoy sharing their knowledge. "The big aim is to encourage our staff not just to use their skills for the company, but also to get involved in the community and help it," said Craig Paterson, social investment co-ordinator and programme manager.

"I was expecting a group of clever kids, but I discovered a group of ­energetic, positive and ­charming people," said volunteer Caryl Regnault. "I was impressed by how passionate they were about making a ­success of their businesses. If the future ­leaders of South Africa are of such a calibre, I have a lot of hope for the development of our nation over the next three decades."

Paterson said volunteers were drawn from every level in the company: "The aim is to share the best of what we have." This year 200 FNB staff members volunteered to participate in the ­programme. Support from senior management has been crucial. "They roll up their sleeves and get actively involved," Paterson said.

In KwaZulu-Natal the bank's chairman visited the principal of each participating school to strengthen the effectiveness of the programme. Life skills and mentorship classes are held on Saturday mornings, which means volunteers have to be prepared to give up precious ­weekend time. They do so cheerfully.

"It proves we are not just helping the South African community. We feel 100% part of it," said Paterson. Business skills are not taught in isolation; the classes focus as much on life skills and personal development as on the ability to develop a sharp business plan. There is also a strong "each one teach one" component: students are encouraged to share their new knowledge with younger pupils in their community.

Paterson admitted that not all was smooth sailing and that some ­students could be "difficult" because of the challenges and pressures they faced in their home environment. The successes far outweigh the ­failures, however.

Paterson told the story of one successful student from the class of 2009 who, after graduating from the programme, went on to win a full scholarship to study at the Zazida Institute of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg, a post-secondary school learning facility "aimed at young, undiscovered self-starters".

Sandy Robertson, FNB's head of internal communications, had just one regret: "It's a pity we can't touch and inspire more students in the life skills and mentorship programme. The change in maturity that these students go through is astounding. It's very motivating."

FNB's Saishen Krishnen said the programme encouraged pupils "to be in charge of their own fate" instead of feeling demoralised by the scarcity of jobs. "For an entrepreneur with a great vision, there will always be an opportunity," she said.

The judges were impressed by the mentorship aspect of the ­programme, pointing out that it was an important interface between the students and business, and one that was actively encouraged by the ­government. They noted that the life skills and mentorship programme was on its way to ­becoming self-sustainable.

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