Charitable CSI is okay

There’s a nicely put-together online debate hosted by The Economist under the rubric “CSR has nothing to do with charity”. Spread through March, it runs in the classical moderator/for-the-motion/against-the-motion way, and readers can vote through the process – a clever way to watch how audience mood swings as the weeks go by. You can follow this at http://ccdebates.eiu.com/

Like all good debates, the motion makes for a straw man on both sides – either is too extreme to stand up to scrutiny. Of course corporate social responsibility enjoys an element of charitable giving – that’s in the very nature of a non-obligatory tax. But people involved in CSR (or, more accurately in the South African context – CSI) are sometimes terrified of the term “charity”, fearing that their deliberations and hard experience in working through systems and processes for the disbursement of largesse are being somehow trivialised. Some may argue that “charity” undermines the work of on-the-ground NGOs and others champions of change who are recipients of corporate giving. There is some truth in these fears, and thus in a wanting instead for terms like “social investment” or, at worst, “philanthropy” as a way of conferring on this work of giving donations a seriousness that might otherwise be missed.

Even so, there is always the danger of over-egging the pudding here. CSI just isn’t rocket or any other kind of science (not that rocketry’s a science, but you get the drift). Often, it’s a very human thing, and sometimes decisions are based on gut, a sense of risk-taking that allows for innovation and even failure. Indeed, too great a risk-aversion by donors, and societal progress necessarily keeps to the same sometimes turgid pace.

It is well to bear in mind that some professionals in the broader CSI sector – whether as donors, or conduits for these, or as consultants to them, or whatever – have an obvious self-interest in gilding the lily, complicating an activity that is already complex, given its cross-societal reach and intimately human character.

Sometimes they’ll try distance themselves from past giving, claiming this to have been “simple (meaning “simplistic” or “naïve”) handing over of cash when such things require hard-and-fast approaches of the professional, i.e. themselves. Or they’ll cloak this work in claims of a needed ROI, or suchlike. All to the good, until one’s understanding of a business return on the investment overshadows CSI’s real purpose – a long-term social return, often impossible to accurately measure and, at its best, a thing of inter-generational consequence and thus of national impact, albeit in ways the donor cannot be sure to predict.

Even the fashionable idea of “impact assessment” can be dodgy, since it is usually exceptionally difficult for any donor to draw anything like a straight and honest line between moneys made available and outcomes over time. Partly this is because outcomes of projects tends to take place over long periods, sometimes frustratingly moving at a thing known as “community pace” and possibly the result of work and support from times well before current social investment in the project being assessed.

Mostly, projects claim various supporters and types of support – and just which of these can claim credit (or should that be part-credit?) for success is often impossible to work out with any real confidence. There are many related problems with this insistence on impact measures, not least being that of deciding whose success one is talking about – the worker making it happen on-the-ground, or the donor, however closely involved in project practicalities?

Some claims – such as that CSI is a “business imperative”, are simply nonsense. If it were imperative to business or brand success, then Cape Town analytical group Trialogue wouldn’t only find about 200 companies in SA whose giving they could measure. All companies would be doing it, or else presumably go to the wall, which they’re clearly not. And it isn’t even required (as opposed to encouraged, albeit minimally) in codes of BBBEE (which are anyway voluntary, and in which CSI plays but a small, easily avoided, part).

None of which means that CSI practitioners shouldn’t be professional, realistic and even hard-nosed in their approach to their work. Rather, it means a withdrawal from extremes, an acceptance and even welcoming of those oft-mocked things in private giving (for what is what CSI properly is) such as generosity and, yes, charity, and, crucially, an acceptance that it isn’t the giver who is doing the empowering in this work, it is the receiver, the ultimate doer.

– Paul Pereira, owner of WHAM! Media.