CSI – what it is, and what it isn’t

Corporate Social Investment (CSI) is often used interchangeably with other concepts like corporate social responsibility (CSR) or sustainable development (SD). Yet they are not the same thing. CSR refers to an organisation’s total responsibility towards the communities and environment in which it operates, commonly referred to as the triple bottom line, or ‘3Ps’ being profit, people and planet. CSI is just one element of CSR and aims to uplift communities in such a way that their quality of life, and society in general, is improved and safeguarded.

Corporate Social Investment is about business giving of their resources, usually in the form of grantmaking (although it may also entail the contribution of time, products, services, skills and expertise) for the betterment of society.


A contribution to society

“Capitalism is suffering from a crisis of trust. Today’s businesses take the blame for many of society’s economic, social and environmental woes, despite the launch of countless corporate social responsibility initiatives in recent decades. Now more than ever – in the midst of a global economic crisis that has strained the capacity of governments and NGOs to address complex societal challenges — it is time to restore public trust through a redefined vision of capitalism with the full potential to meet social needs.” ~ Michael Porter, Harvard Business School Professor

Most corporate activity (i.e. regular business) is about business in society. CSI is about business and society. Yes, business does impact on community through areas like employment, procurement, and health and safety, but that is a consequence of general corporate activity.

CSI, on the other hand, is far more intentional and targeted. CSI embraces the concept of local community, those organisations, institutions and individuals that operate at grassroots level as effective agents of social change, and do so far more effectively than business ever could. CSI has its own particular structures and operates autonomously even though it reports through to business and remains a part of it.


Delivery versus development

Understanding CSI is, as founding Tshikululu Social Investments CEO Margie Keeton noted in 2008, also about appreciating the difference between delivery and development. These terms are easily confused.

Delivery is about physical improvements in the conditions in which people live like houses, streets, electricity and running water. Development is about improving people’s lives and their life chances, and it usually takes off once they feel empowered to take the first small steps towards influencing their own destiny. Delivery can take place without development; thoughtful CSI can provide elements of both.


CSI is not just about resources

CSI is not about businesses finding solutions to the problems of people and communities in need. It is about businesses developing the best ways to support others who are already active – or can be helped to become active – in finding those solutions themselves. So it’s not just about the money. If it were, it would be easy for organisations to overwhelm or submerge their community partners in cash. CSI is also fundamentally about relationships with the community, which are delicate and need to be developed with sensitivity and patience. This is often hard for businesses, and they can easily find themselves slipping into the role of ‘big brother’.


This is a journey

Regardless of where you find yourselves with your social investment at the moment, you can rest assured that you are not alone. There are many likeminded people who are doing this either better, not as well or similar to you! Nation Builder aims to provide support and knowledge-sharing to your business as you move forward in your journey and go from strength to strength in pursuing profitability as well as social impact. This will benefit your business and our nation.


What is social impact?

As we look at strategic social investment and nation building there is much emphasis on and talk of ‘social impact’, so it is important to have a basic understanding of what social impact means. For our purposes throughout this Toolkit, social impact refers to the manner and measure of how a company’s operations affect social and environmental factors in the communities within which it operates. Positive social impact is far more than just sporadic charity and occasional handouts – it is about how a company or organisation succeeds in lifting the standard of living, investing in the wellbeing, empowerment and potential of any given group of individuals over the long term.

A bigger and broader understanding of social impact also touches on the idea that by investing socially in our communities, we also invest in the future economic frameworks for better and more prosperous business in our country. Let us not forget that a key element of positive social impact is acknowledging beneficiaries as the most important agents of change, and our role through our social investment is therefore to partner with and stand alongside those that are doing the work on-the-ground.

Where there is dignity, mutual respect and empowerment, as well as a long-term commitment to partnering with those beneficiaries, we are most likely to see the greatest social impact. Remember that you do not need to be a mighty corporation to benefit our nation and communities in need. Every small contribution, if it has been thoughtfully considered, has the potential to make a tangible difference. At the end of the day, social investment is about people’s lives. It is about empowerment not about handouts. And it’s not just about the poor; it is about each of us. After all, our very own futures are entirely wrapped up in the future of our country.


  • By Lauren Henning, Nation Builder public affairs director, and Paul Pereira, WHAM! Media. First published by Nation Builder (proudnationbuilder.co.za).

IMAGE: FNB Fund Aremeleng workshop, Johannesburg, 2012.


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