Is social entrepreneurship the new charity?

Training NGO staff in the skills that they require will help these organisations to become contributors to the mainstream economy

Training NGO staff in the skills that they require will help these organisations to become contributors to the mainstream economy

Social entrepreneurship is not charity” say Mustaq Brey (CEO of Brimstone) and Kevin Barbeau, executive director of Women and Men Against Child Abuse. The Brimstone Empowerment Share Trust (BEST) is underpinned by this idea, focusing on investing for the greater good in a manner that pays long-term dividends for everyone involved.

While there are many organisations and individuals already “doing good” in the world, their efforts are often not sufficient or sustainable. Of course, doing good on an individual level is admirable and important, and the well-worn metaphor of throwing one starfish of many back into the ocean to save its life holds. But the “charity” sector has never had enough funds to go around, and if one considers current factors such as donor fatigue and tight economic times the world over, it seems likely that there’ll be even less available in 2019 – or for the foreseeable future.

The seemingly bleak big picture is that with a growing world population of 6.6-billion people, jobs and income are in short supply, and the increase in automation replacing unskilled labour is likely to increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots. As this gap widens and resources for those in need dry up, what happens to those who have nothing – and whose responsibility is it to care for them and break the cycle of poverty?

By and large, South Africa does not have a culture of saving. Living from paycheck to paycheck means that many are just one paycheck away from bankruptcy, possibly three to four away from losing everything, and just months from ending up on the streets, then reliant on someone else’s support. Alarmist? No — cold, hard fact. Given that tough economic conditions and rising levels of debt mean that many of us are just a short fall from being the ones in need of help, isn’t time to readjust our attitudes?

While the majority continue to turn a blind eye and believe that it’s the responsibility of for government, the wealthy, companies, or anyone else but themselves to look after the displaced and the poverty-stricken, there will never be enough, and the status quo will never change.

To look at it from a less altruistic viewpoint, the cost to the economy of one child, one woman, one man who does not get help, is potentially massive. None of us, then, can afford to ignore the NGO (nongovernmental organisation) sector or see it as a non-contributor to the fiscus and to the running of the country.

It’s not all doom and gloom: With a drastic mindset change in how we perceive charity, along with an openness to increased collaboration, we can move mountains by working together. This shift needs to happen at corporate level, while philanthropists, the public, government and those in the NGO sector need to be open to collaboration with each other so that everyone can win.

So, for a start, we have to stop using the word charity. The NGO sector has to refrain from using the term and must refine its approach to potential donors, corporates and supporters. We must rather look at things from the angle of social entrepreneurship, and show potential supporters that an “investment” into an organisation can bring significant returns. What those returns will be is a factor that varies from organisation to organisation, but in essence, anything that minimises the cost burden on the country is a positive return.

This different approach also brings with it a certain credibility: brands may speak the language of the people, but NGOs need to up their game in terms of their positioning, to ensure that their cause is well-communicated and can be easily aligned with those who can provide input or investment.

Investment trumps charity every time, but what does this mean for us as givers? For one, it’s necessary to make the shift from giving one-off donations. A more considered approach entails more initial effort on the parts of almost everyone involved, but it’s clear from the example that Brimstone provides that there will be benefits down the line if a more sustained, long-term investment strategy is employed by both givers and receivers.

For NGOs specifically, there’s a need to empower staff through teaching and training for more in-depth skills development. Good intentions don’t give organisations longevity. In fact, we should probably do away with free help, instead working towards a strategy of less volunteers and more committed paid staff, presenting an opportunity to sidestep the ill effects of volunteerism that have been noted in recent years.

If a long-term strategy is in place, then this idea of hiring long-term employees at NGOs can be a reality with the help of investors who believe in the project, with the additional benefit of employment created within the organisations. Imagine if the NGO sector actually became a large employer of manpower, where it was a first port of call for young, enthusiastic and qualified personnel, and that we could once more prioritise and promote vocational employment to the level of value and desirability that it so richly deserves? The possibilities seem endless.

We need to re-introduce the concept of “care” into our vocabulary and thinking. A real world example is how patients are often poorly treated in the overloaded public health system. The most vulnerable in our society often leave government institutions feeling worthless and dehumanised, as a result of service that’s hard to come by, cold, or at worst, cruel. If we instead let them know that someone cares about them, this nurturing can have a fundamental positive impact on how they themselves see others and treat them. To restore dignity to the populations of countries with high levels of poverty, genuine care is required.

What about corporates that prefer to share expertise as their means of giving back? Some companies have corporate social investment policies in place where the focus is on capital sweat, encouraging or enforcing that staff must give of their time to upskill those who need assistance. Unfortunately, this usually equates to only about two hours volunteered per person for a year, so whether the corporates’ motivations are tight-fisted or well-intentioned, little long-term value results.

Of course, support from corporates isn’t exclusively about money: it is about skills transferral too. So, what about sending the NGO staff into the organisation instead? Training the NGO staff in the skills the organisation lacks, and that can only enhance it?

Is the NGO sector evolving to be a contributor to the mainstream economy? Emphatically yes. The NGO sector provides for the needs for the social ills of SA, not the private sector or government. Without it, say many, there’d be anarchy.

People are being laid off in their hundreds, which leads to poverty and with poverty comes an increase in abuse and crime. And so, the cycle begins again. If a child who is sexually abused does not get any intervention, for example, then she may never be able to find or cultivate the emotional resources to become a proactive member of society – whatever their financial position may be. But, if the organisations working in this field have the funds, skills, and long-term wherewithal to provide remedial interventions then this person has a good chance at being a productive member of society.

This is what is meant by a mind-set shift when it comes to investment: if a corporate could see that far down the line, their contribution to supporting organisations in the NGO sector is producing people who will strengthen the society and economy in which that corporate operates, then they needn’t even have charitable intentions to understand that their contribution is well-placed.

Brimstone’s investment strategy in its commercial business has always been about the long-term, so “investing” in their CSI programme had to match, which is how BEST came about. It’s about long-term care and sustainability – ensuring that NGOs are compliant, giving them the comfort of our support, whether as a sounding board for their own growth, or sharing of skills: the company holds regular skills training and knowledge-sharing workshops to which all our NGOs are invited.

Once a rigorous due diligence has been conducted and the NGO qualifies, Brimstone through BEST issues shares, which then sit on the NGO’s balance sheet. The better Brimstone does, the better for the NGO. There are also annual dividends paid in addition to the increase in the value of the shares, which can only be traded after a period of five years. This approach to supporting the NGO sector is ingenious and should be deployed throughout corporate South Africa. What if mining houses used the BEST practice and invested shares in their own employees’ welfare organisations?

Brimstone is quite unique in how it has approached its CSI, with its BEST practice. The allocated shares are properly managed and planned for, so there is no more scramble to find funds to support ad hoc campaigns, like the many and varied charity challenges aimed at corporate South Africa: every month there’s a new one. Corporates are stretched as it is and while NGOs remain in the fund request/demand frame of mind, they’ll continue to fight for their share of the ever-decreasing corporate purse.

But if corporations were prepared to transfer shares (with conditions, of course), and NGOs were willing to accept and change how they approach their own sustainability (such as developing a service or a product that can generate an income), then no one would lose, and everyone would gain, not just monetarily, but also in respect for self and others.

South Africa has a goldmine of potential in its people, but for this resource to be successfully employed, in both senses of the word, significant investment of the right kind is needed. Our Constitution is the best in the world – at least on paper – and now we just need to put it into practice. Supporting others is no longer charity: it’s an antidote to inertia and apathy, and insurance against ill will.