When companies claim the CSI success of others

When companies are serious about their good giving through corporate social investment (CSI), they monitor its progress as they would any other investment. After all, CSI monies properly belong to shareholders or business owners and need to be properly spent. But too few companies realise that CSI’s success hinges on investing at home base first.

These days there’s much understandable noise about companies needing to carefully monitor and evaluate how effective their CSI funding is. Realistic monitoring of what can truly be measured in complex community development work is obviously necessary, but it’s a discipline that too few companies take seriously.

Unlike most other things a business an measure, the success or otherwise of social development work is by its nature usually less easy to pin down. And it can be especially difficult to draw honest lines between the support a business gives to a good cause or community project, and the results of this.

So we might see corporate donors trumpeting improved pass rates in schools they support as an obvious result of their CSI largesse. But it ain’t necessarily so. After all, exam results depend on teaching, school leadership, home environments, community cohesion, departmental deliveries, individual nutrition, and much more. We can’t always know what factors have been most important over the many years of a scholar’s career. There are many such dilemmas and murkiness when CSI is honestly appraised.  

But funded projects can at least be monitored. These measurables will tend to be in the promises that won the company’s support for a particular project in the first place. Monitoring how these are panning out should take place throughout a CSI funding relationship, and not just in retrospect.

So the company would check progress on what’s already agreed, but hopefully with appropriate flexibility to allow for mutually adjusted expectations if reality dictates. For this monitoring pudding is very easily over-egged.  

Some companies may insist on seeing quick, obviously positive results in a project, losing sight of some inevitable messiness in this sort of work. That messiness can include the length of time needed for upliftment to get traction, be hostage to unexpected local circumstances that change a project’s pace, or be affected in unforeseen ways by various other project partners. Almost uniquely in company endeavours, CSI’s success also depends on many factors that no company can fully risk control.    

Mostly, CSI it’s a very human thing, and some on-the-hoof project decisions have to be made on gut, allowing for fast innovations and, yes, risking failure.

While insisting on a good ROI is common sense, rigid demands for clearly business-aligned returns can overshadow CSI’s real purpose – long-horizon, incremental and lasting improvements in people’s life chances. It’s mainly about increasing the choices that people have, now and inter-generationally. In this work, the long haul must often outrank instant gratification.  

Along the way, let’s not over-burden projects by asking for irrelevant information, difficult to quantify results, and reporting periods that are too short to make developmental sense. Do our reporting requirements of projects add significantly to their cost of operating and, if we need that anyhow, have we provided the necessary additional funding for this?

Having insisted on particular information, have we got our own company ducks lined up to make proper sense of it all? After all, judging how community investments are progressing always needs a far deeper and nuanced judgement than simple statistics can provide.

Ultimately, investing in that sort of social investment nous within the company itself pays the best in strategising and then managing useful social investments. It’s the most effective CSI guarantee any company has.

Ironically, then, companies will likely find few realisable social investment returns until they’ve invested properly in their own CSI function, and shared in the learnings of their peers. Getting CSI to have meaningful effect is a battle won on the home front.

  • Paul Pereira, WHAM! Media.

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