CSI: How to choose project partners

With your internal corporate social investment systems in place, company leadership buy-in and strategy sorted, now comes the time to choose project partners to fund or support in other ways. A core part of this preparation will be defining the sort of work you want to support and putting formal processes in place to help you identify the best ones. This helps to avoid the temptation of ‘emotional giving’.

It might be a good idea to ring-fence a part of the CSI budget for once-off or discretionary grants that aren’t possible to plan or fall outside of your focus areas but which are necessary from time-to-time.

In choosing a project or project implementing organisation (usually an NPO/NPC, school, state institution, or similar) it helps to remember why the ‘partnership’ part of successful CSI matters. Simply, it’s because partners bring different but mutually-reinforcing strengths to project success.

Typically, the company brings resources, usually financial, while the implementing partner brings on-the ground experience and know-how and is the implementer — although some companies also initiate and implement their own social investment programmes.

Each partner empowers the other and none is, in reality, more important than the other.

The main question

Most CSI practitioners and companies are flooded with requests and applications for funding — from organisations big and small, impressive and less impressive. How do you filter these requests and determine which organisations are going to be the best match for your business to partner with as well as achieve the best possible impact in your communities/areas of interest?

Project selection

Some companies use a list of funding criteria to guide their CSI commitments, while others base their funding on causes close to employee hearts. Sometimes companies find themselves reacting to specific urgent issues such as natural or unexpected disasters. All of these have value.

The most crucial question to ask yourself at all times is: “Does this fit with our CSI mandate, focus, vision and mission”? This will assist you to be strategically proactive (rather than just reactive) and to have defined boundaries when saying “yes” or “no” to funding requests. CSI can be a very emotional terrain and it is advisable to set clear criteria and boundaries from the outset.

Funding Guidelines

Whether or not you actively seek applicants, it helps them and you to work from easily-grasped funding guidelines so that there are fewer misunderstandings and assumptions between the different parties from the start. In this process of choosing a partner, here are some things to consider:

More than just money

Companies do not need to consider financial contributions as their only form of social investment.

Companies can also invest through providing their employees, expertise, products, services or facilities.

Some companies allow their staff to volunteer a part of their in-work time to a non-profit organisation. There are even companies that prefer to invest in social-purpose businesses using equity or discounted loans.

There is no such thing as the ‘perfect project’

Community development is often a messy process of unexpected complexity, unique local conditions and patience. While it is right to back best practice and proven track records, all projects bring surprises along the way and often disappointments. Do not let this deter you from this work.

Be consistent and predictable

Both to cover your own back within and outside the company, and for reasons of fairness, be transparent in the processes you use to choose partners. Base these on openly stated focus areas that you’re interested in, clearly laid-out basic rules, company CSI strategic approach and likely timelines.

Join what is already there

Working with the community means understanding that it has its own set of internal dynamics. You can’t just foist yourself, your company and your ideas onto the community; you have to join in with what is already taking place.

Pushing communities towards what you think is good for them seldom provides sustainable change and often creates resentment. Projects will be viewed as yours, not theirs. When this happens, the project is doomed. You will find yourself alone at meetings with a long line of people looking for handouts, while those you really need on the project will have moved on.

Know when to stand back

From a humanitarian perspective, it is difficult to allow projects to develop at their own pace. It is even more difficult to stand by and watch them fail. But sometimes, you have to do this.

Of course, company personnel are better qualified to run projects by virtue of their education and work experience. But is this the point? Before you step in to manage a project, ask yourself what will happen to all the people if you leave. So don’t take over other people’s projects in your enthusiasm.

Learning when to step back is a subtle skill acquired over time.

Be aware of community dynamics

Do not imagine that community is all about love and togetherness. There can be a lot of politicking and turf being contested. Therefore, it’s important that you not take sides or cross the line, otherwise you will lose credibility. It’s not an easy position to maintain: the seductive pull of ‘saving’ people makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. But remember that it’s not your money, and decisions and policy can change quickly, leaving you isolated and without the means to assist anyone.

Available budget

Familiarise yourself with your company’s strategic plans for the future as they could have a direct effect on your CSI initiatives. Limit your support of projects if you are not sure that your CSI funding source is stable.

Can the project work without you?

Part of your job is to empower people to believe in their abilities, otherwise you unwittingly create a culture of dependency.

By all means, influence timing and keep things moving but don’t set the pace. Try setting a task, standing back and seeing if there’s enough strength in your team for it to happen. If there isn’t, the project could be in trouble.

Look for that ‘X factor’

All the ‘do’s and don’ts’ in the selection process are necessary. But they are essentially about looking for exceptional individuals and organisations whose work in serving, empowering and uplifting communities is bringing about lasting change and with whom you would do well to partner.

  • By Lauren Henning and Paul Pereira. Henning is Public Affairs Director at Nation Builder and Pereira runs WHAM! Media. This CSI introduction is extracted from Nation Builder’s “The Good Partner Guide for Business”, available at https://proudnationbuilder.co.za/resources/.

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