Covid-19 Exposes The Ill Preparedness Of CSI South Africa

As corporates and NGOs wake up to the fact that the biggest impact of Coronavirus might be economic, we see a distinct pattern emerging.  Companies, eager to help, are running to the one thing they know –food parcels.

I believe this response, noble as it is, reveals, once again, the fault lines in CSI as a whole. Why are we so very unprepared for crisis? Why is it that companies are scrambling to find organisations to give money to? In all this time, have they not built up a knowledge of the top NGOs in education, food distribution, medical care, entrepreneurship training, small business development, alternative energy provision – and a myriad other categories of development – and formed relationships with some of these NGOs? Clearly not.

In just a over a week I’ve received emails from five companies asking for NGOs to apply for the funding they have at their disposal for food parcels. The process involves filling in application forms and providing supporting documentation. Now who, I ask you, has time for the red tape, the running around getting documents together, the filling in of applications, in a time of crisis? These companies ought already to have at their disposal a firm grounding in who is doing what, and in what areas, and at what scale, so that their giving is truly effective and of lasting value.

The scrambling for outlets for their money reveals a lack of seriousness in our CSI efforts. Not all good works are of great value. Handing out food parcels randomly may make the giver feel good, but if it is done without knowledge, efforts may be wasted. You find, for example, that company A quickly finds a school or early learning centre in a township, donates food parcels and leaves – unaware that last week Company B did the same thing in the same community. Funds might have been better ploughed into something different.

Small businesses

Truly, our CSI managers need to think outside of the box. Our biggest casualty in this time is going to be the small, struggling entrepreneurs – thousands of them, across the country, employing perhaps five to ten people each – but together making massive contributions to poverty relief simply by being employers. Have CSI managers thought of selecting a cluster of small businesses and making use of their services to distribute, publicise, manufacture, educate or hand out whatever Covid-19 related good work they wish to do? Why not hire two trucks from the struggling entrepreneur down the road to distribute blankets as flu season approaches? Why not hire the small, three-person PR company to run an interactive educational campaign for school children? Or sponsor the manufacturer of solar-powered radios, or fuel-efficient cooking devices, or a myriad other innovative products and services that small businesses provide? Food parcels are necessary and serve an immediate need, but we should be looking further and deeper.

R5 billion rand
We’ve heard that over R5 billion has been pledged or distributed via the Solidarity Fund, but in almost a full day of following up via phone calls and emails, I have not, for the life of me, managed to find any organisation that can categorically say they received a portion of it. Honestly, I was sent from pillar to post and to date I have not found that post. No company can say how that money is being used, either. Some said they’d get back to me and asked me to wait. I am still waiting.

My point is not that this is a fictitious fund – only that there is a state of disorganisation and unclarity in the CSI industry, and that certainly, the oft-heard cliché remains true – we work in siloes. No one knows what the other organisation is doing, has received, or plans to do. We do not dovetail with one another. We work as if there are not already excellent organisations, with strong networks and distribution channels, doing what we’re struggling to conceive of and implement.   

One or two bright spots

There are companies that get this right. I don’t say they’re perfect – but they’re clearly organised and have a firm grasp of the capabilities of the wide variety of NGOs that they cover in their giving. The Old Mutual Foundation, for instance, who announced a R50 million rand contribution to Covid-19 efforts, is crystal clear about where their money has gone, and why, and to what end.  One of their activities was the distribution of food parcels in Alexandra.

My question – and a question posed by Momentum’s CSI manager – is why do we not, as the entire CSI sector, have a joint emergency fund? This issue has been raised in numerous forums but has not yet taken off. Is this because of a lack of trust? It certainly cannot be due to a lack of capability.

I maintain that we need a strong, well-managed joint corporate emergency fund. The fund would leap into action in the most coordinated way when disasters strike – as they did last year during our xenophobic attacks. People were left homeless and destitute and, as is the case now, companies scrambled to respond, hastily putting together funds and plans under pressure.

Instead, we could have had a joint fund, and dedicated people tasked to respond at all levels, swiftly, with plans already in place.

Today, companies are simply ill prepared. CSI managers are searching through piles of outdated applications trying to figure out who to fund. Those that are distributing food parcels are doing so in a political way, giving to friends and family and to those who voted either ANC or DA. Moreover, they’re visiting communities that have been visited by other companies.

If Coronavirus has not given the CSI industry a wakeup call, nothing will.  Food parcels form a part of the total package, and if we want to give them out, why not contact one of the handful of truly dedicated NGOs that already do this so well? Organisations like Imbumba Foundation, Food Forward and Gift of the Givers. These organisations already have the networks and the capabilities. They know where the need is greatest, and they will put the money to good use. There may be others. Forgive me if I have omitted your organisation. The point is that there are specialists in every area of social development, and CSI managers need to do their research and work together far more to find out how their money can be most effectively used.

New ideas

Let’s generate new ideas.  I’ve mentioned some above. Two crucial areas for our recovery as a nation are catch-up classes for children (now and after lock-down) and keeping small businesses afloat. What can your company do to boost both of these areas?

In health, what can you do? According to Professor Wolfgang Preiser, Head of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University, about 11 000 people die from flu in South Africa each year. We could be funding a massive vaccination drive across the country. If vaccines are not available, we could be preparing people in other ways. What about a large-scale distribution of Vit C? Or other nutritional products? Reducing the incidence of flu will reduce the burden on the healthcare system, already challenged because of Coronavirus.

The opportunities for your company or NGO are endless. Think things through. Do the research. Communicate with other CSI managers and NGOs.  A collaboration between two or three corporates may be far more effective that having your company once again go it alone. And let’s begin to consider a completely joint approach, perhaps running alongside your company’s individual efforts. A 10% donation of your company’s CSI spend might help sustain a joint corporate emergency fund, relieving you of the burden when emergencies occur. 

Just some things to think about.

Mtetwa Simphiwe
Simphiwe Mtetwa is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief for Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa.

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