Instead of behaving like donors, companies and their volunteers should think of themselves as patrons of social impact. That means partnership with beneficiaries to help them to help themselves, writes Luvuyo Madasa.
I was recently part of a panel at FirstRand’s
Beyond Painting Classrooms (BPC) event, where many South Africans who are passionate
about corporate social investment (CSI) gathered to discuss ways to ensure that
employee volunteering is sustainable and impactful. The fact that we are having
these discussions is good news – it’s a welcome step on the road to a more
effective and scalable approach to volunteering and CSI.
As the name of the event implies, it’s time
for us to move beyond sending volunteers to paint classrooms at schools in poor
areas for Mandela Day or dropping in at a crèche or retirement home to hand out
Christmas gifts. While the beneficiaries usually appreciate these small acts of
kindness, corporate volunteering is all too often something that happens to
them – rather than in partnership with them.
In practice, that often means armies of
corporate volunteers arrive throughout the year to paint walls that were
actually painted not so long ago. And in some instances, it means that there is
no follow-through after the initial intervention on the part of the volunteers.
Once that computer lab is equipped, who will provide the on-going tech support?
And was a computer lab what the school really needed in the first place?
This is why volunteerism
and other corporate interventions need to shift towards an approach that is less
piecemeal and bottom-down – one that gives the beneficiary more of a voice, one
that engages employees as active citizens, and one that takes a more strategic,
long-term approach to making a difference.
Such an approach should harmonise the
efforts of all stakeholders, enabling collaboration for the good of society. It
is about ensuring that there is intentionality throughout every engagement and
in every organisation that participates – synthesising the skills and resources
of big companies, the good intentions of the people on the ground, and the
requirements and capabilities of the beneficiaries.
We need an approach that
shifts away from charitable giving towards sustainable impact. Instead of
behaving like donors, we believe that companies and their volunteers should
think of themselves as patrons of social impact. That means partnership with
beneficiaries to help them to help themselves.
Bringing together profit and purpose
For example, why just put a couple of
computers in a classroom and call it lab? Is there a possibility to teach
someone at the school to support the technology and perhaps even grow this into
a profitable business that serves the community? How do we unlock more value
from these interventions to create virtuous circle of profit and purpose?
It’s also key for us to start thinking
about poverty alleviation, social change and education in a more systemic
manner. Small interventions at a classroom level don’t address the wider
failings in our educational system. Helping a homeless person today is
important – but how do we address the larger causes of homelessness? While the
efforts should start at the grassroots, but they should also have a long-term
This is why an ecosystem
approach that engages all stakeholders to make a difference is important – from the company
that wants to make wise CSI investments to the citizen who wants to help build
a better country to anyone who wants something “better” for
themselves and for their community. People and communities should be at the
epicentre of these efforts, with partners and patrons serving as the catalysts
Now is the time to start having
conversations about how we can change our country for the better. Collective
action is key to unlocking inclusive growth, scaling up successful social
initiatives and building the South Africa we wish our children to inherit from
– Luvuyo Madasa is executive director of ReimagineSA.
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