Across Africa, corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs are often a requirement (if not a mandate) of any international investment. Their application varies from simple PR opportunities fulfilling government requirements, to effective, community-changing organisations of their own.
The approaches companies take to engage in philanthropic activities include everything from just writing cheques to causes, to developing their own in-house programmes.
No matter what approach you choose, or your company already has in place, here are some thoughts based on observations of 50+ years of CSR programs across Africa and in developed markets.
Start with what you know
The challenge here lies with pre-conceived ideas of what social responsibility looks like. In emerging markets it traditionally has something to do with healthcare, education, or food/water access.
This doesn’t have to be the case though. Think outside the box, and start with what you know; what your core competencies are as a company. Then use those sets of skills, resources, or tools as the foundation of your CSR program.
When a logistics multinational won a local port management concession, the government mandated a certain rand amount to be spent on CSR initiatives. This company took the traditional route, with little to show for it beyond a nice donation figure with several commas to illustrate the CSR impact.
What would have had greater impact on the community, and arguably eventually their own business, would be to provide their services gratis to local NGOs or entrepreneurs starting businesses.
These service ‘rands’ would help stretch NGOs’ limited budgets that much further, perhaps allowing them to bring in additional shipments. Or, they might have helped the struggling, budding entrepreneur to bring just a little more product to really get the business off the ground.
Provide services or product with monetary value, but in ways that leverage your company’s resources and skill sets for a much broader impact.
Focus on adding value
This theme, though sometimes cliché, is key to developing and operating an effective CSR programme. Ask yourself, ‘how do we add value to this community?’ The obvious answers of employment, taxes, etc. aren’t what we’re looking for in outcomes of a CSR programme. Any company could provide those benefits. What does your company do or offer beyond those things that adds and creates value in the local community?
Andrew Carnegie was responsible for building over 2 500 libraries around the world. In the era before the Internet and broadcast TV, libraries were the primary source of information and knowledge outside of schools.
Libraries, to Carnegie, were key to building knowledgeable societies that could take advantage of opportunities to create value and grow. Though this work was done in a personal capacity and not as a CSR project affiliated with a company, his position and influence at the time as a surrogate for the US Steel industry is valid.
Look in, employees
Modern, global companies – often in the tech industry – have figured out that engaging employees in what is important to them, and providing outlets and support for their personal interests actually adds value to the company. This is often true when developing CSR strategies in countries across Africa.
When trying to identify needs in the community, look in first. What do your employees say? What are their needs when they go home? What do they wish their kids had access to? By directing resources towards things that matter to your employees, they are driven with dedication to the company. They also become valuable allies if (or when) issues or differences arise with the local community or officials.
Leveraging the input and ideas of employees has even greater importance when you consider recent studies on the implicit leadership theories of many of the cultures across sub-Saharan Africa. These studies have shown that none of the top 10 leadership traits important to western cultures are even on the same list as the local ones.
The key takeaway for CSR strategy is that the most common number one leadership trait locally is the ability to ‘take care’ of the followers. Your company is the leader of your employees and their communities. Take care of them with genuine dedication, and you might be surprised how your company benefits in turn.
Finally, make sure that you can measure the impact of your CSR programme’s activities beyond just a highlighted rand figure of money spent.
- How many people are better off now than before?
- How many people are healthier now?
- How many people have taken advantage of opportunities they couldn’t before?
Measuring ensures accountability. The benefits to your company from measuring and demonstrating effectiveness can’t be overstated.
However, the greatest benefits from designing and implementing an effective and efficient CSR programme will most definitely show up on the bottom line. After all, business exists to create and build value. Just don’t make profit the sole focus, and you might be surprised at the results.