Building community assets

Corporate social investment (CSI) tends to mirror the corporate business footprint. Because large companies typically operate across most provinces, the CSI budget is usually spread far and wide.

The companies that choose to focus their CSI interventions often do so by channeling their funds to a particular type of developmental intervention.

Exceptions occur when a company has a dominant local presence in the form of a manufacturing plant or a mine. In such cases a degree of interdependence exists between the company and its employees (and their families) who live in neighbouring communities. This provides a rationale for uplifting the social and economic conditions of the whole community and is in the long-term interests of the company and of the community.

Different approaches
The community development approach most often chosen by companies is to select one or two discrete projects, such as building an ablution block for a school, offering a supplementary school education programme, buying equipment for a start-up enterprise or funding a local welfare cause.

The contributions are valuable and can make a real difference to the people who benefit directly, but this approach has its limitations. First, the interventions are often treated as isolated inputs, with the focus placed on "delivering on a promise" rather than on holistic outcomes.

The development landscape is littered with projects that had zero impact because they were implemented in a piece-meal fashion (often with little follow-through to ensure sustainability). An example of this kind of project is the donation of computer equipment to a school with little thought of how the equipment will be maintained or whether teachers have sufficient computer literacy to guide their students.

A second limiting factor arises from contributions made in the absence of a coherent plan that is co-owned and supported by community stakeholders. Lack of legitimate community buy-in will compromise the sustainability of any initiative.

A more inclusive and holistic approach entails an initial investment in understanding the fabric of the beneficiary community and which interest groups exist, what their frustrations are with the current system, what their priorities are and what the power dynamics within the community are.

The supposition is that providing support and involving community interest groups in the solution will result in a more sustained outcome. This is a longer road, and one that is less travelled by CSI programmes, but it is likely to bring about a more sustainable impact.

Current dilemma
The current regulatory system provides little incentive for a change in approach towards more inclusive or holistic thinking.

The integrated development plans of local municipalities function within a limited scope of infrastructural priorities. The department of trade and industry's broad-based black economic empowerment codes of good practice incentivise companies to spend funds on socioeconomic development, but contain no guidance on outcomes or intent.

When it comes to CSI, companies's management want to see tangible evidence of progress, with clear measures of how the investment is being spent. It is therefore little wonder that companies concentrate on what they can manage, which is short-term, discrete and visible interventions in areas of apparent need.

Consider a change
Migrating from a project-focused approach to holistic and inclusive development requires patience and a shift in mindset — easier said than done. The very presence of corporate activity can lead to unrealistic expectations and territorial jostling as community leaders look after their individual interests. Simply managing relationships with differing localities of power and vested interests can be a daunting task.

Although it is true that a company cannot operate in isolation, it is not easy for companies to work alongside various government departments, non-profit organisations, community-based organisations and other businesses.

But given the poor state of socio-economic health in many communities, some of which have benefited from corporate support to the tune of hundreds of millions of rand, should the current approach not be reconsidered?

Perhaps it is time for companies to ask a different set of questions, to engage communities with a view to forming long-term partnerships and to give away some of the control over priority setting. In doing so, the longer-term outlook may well look more appealing.

Delegates attending Trialogue's Making CSI Matter 2013 conference will have the chance to explore platforms that can be used to connect with young people, and ways to improve work prospects for young adults on May 28 and 29. For more information visit csimatters.co.za

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian's advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.

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