Understanding CSI

It’s critical to know the difference between delivery and development.

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 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’.

Professionalise delivery

CSI must be subject to the same standards of professionalism as any core business function. This applies to knowledge, systems and processes. Subjective factors like sentimentality, favouritism or a desire to influence can never be the basis for sound, sustainable CSI. Part of this professionalisation includes a defined strategy, mandate, budget, dedicated resources and well-defined funding criteria in line with the company’s vision and mission.

Quality, not quantity

Even relatively small companies, which will never be among the big spenders globally, can be leaders in terms of the quality of their CSI.

In South Africa, for example, quality CSI spend has historically generated disproportionate practical outcomes in comparison to bigger spenders. So remember that size isn’t everything and the biggest project isn’t necessarily the most successful. Often, it’s the smaller, more manageable project underpinned by a set of workable ideas and anchored in the community that stands the test of time. Indeed, your vision as a CSI practitioner should always be to ‘punch above your weight’.


Work from a base of knowledge. Get to know and understand your environment, the community and the local economy. Aim to develop this knowledge yourself. Recruit consultants if you have to but remember that consultants come and go – and their views are only a partial interpretation. Take the time to digest and make sense of the impressions you gather in the ever-changing, contradictory and confusing contexts that make up a community. Distil your ideas and share them with colleagues and where appropriate, external stakeholders.

Meet local needs

Don’t always be seduced by what lies over the horizon. Often, the areas of greatest need are right in your backyard. Try and focus on the needs of people within your reach or within reach of a regional focus.

Develop areas of excellence

CSI is better suited to some areas of development than others.

Therefore, it’s important to focus on what works as well as what is relevant or has a sensible fit to your business. Start with projects that look as if they’ll succeed. Key indicators are a good track record, able leadership and sound analysis.

Bear in mind that it’s not always about scale: often, excellence emerges in the most unlikely of circumstances — for example, in small, struggling projects where people are doing things right. Remember that CSI is about helping others to make more of themselves, both at an organisational and a beneficiary level.

The power of relationships

Relationships cannot be bought; they must be built. It’s hard work, done consistently over time. It means keeping your promises, showing you care and taking the long view, among other things. Most importantly, it means engaging constructively and sensitively when there are difficult issues and always looking for solutions together.

Recognise the work of your partners

An important part of grantmaking is how the funding you provide empowers others to do more for those in need around them. No matter what the nature of your involvement in social upliftment, recognise and acknowledge the work of your partners.

Key to this is to acknowledge beneficiaries as the most important agents of change in their lives, and not just your contribution to the work on the ground. Nothing sets in motion positive and lasting social change like restored dignity, empowerment and self-determination among people and communities. After all, social investment is about investing in the lives, hopes, health and futures of human beings—and so, ultimately, the future of our country.

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

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