by Braam Malherbe

Be responsible

CSI beyond the boardroom

Know where your corporate spend is going
Charity beyond the boardroom

Any corporate website in South Africa is likely to reveal the presence of words such as "accountability", "transparency" and "corporate social investment" (CSI).

While corporate South Africa is at pains to point out its virtues in the boardroom, it is in many instances failing the community by not applying those same stringent criteria of accountability and transparency to charity organisations that it supports through financial donations and investment.

As a corporate citizen, you must be perceived as responsible, involved and committed to helping the less fortunate or disenfranchised. Scream from the rooftops that you are doing all of that and accusations of insincerity and of "cashing in" on the misery of others quickly follow.

This has created an environment in which big business writes cheques, creates a CSI tab on the website and crosses its fingers that the right balance of sincerity and discretion has been struck.

Clearly that is a gross generalisation but I would argue it is a fair assumption that few corporate citizens subject their chosen charitable partners to the same vigorous due diligence and hoop-jumping imposed on all other suppliers.

It is well past time that corporate South Africa got tough on charity. The cost of indulgence is simply too high. It is an unpalatable truth that as expansive as the human capacity for empathy and generosity is, there are those who will seek to exploit that generosity either through outright deception or omission.

"The devil is in the detail" goes the saying, and it is here that big business in our country is exposed in relation to its lack of due diligence around the "do good" industry. There are about 100,000 nonprofit organisations registered in South Africa and perhaps as many as 50,000 unregistered charitable organisations, many of which — despite being unregistered — do important and selfless good work.

But it is into this void that the murkier for-profit organisation steps in and, by virtue of omission or ludicrously hard to find or worded small print, they set about "raising awareness" of causes, and while they often do donate a percentage of funds raised to their nominated cause, their express reason for being is to generate a profit for their shareholders.

These for-profit organisations are vulnerable to being exposed in the media by journalists and through whistle-blowers whose ire has been raised by what is perceived to be profiteering from the generosity of others.

If business is not seen to thoroughly investigate and hold financially accountable the organisations it donates money to or invests in, the paying public or your customers and clients will have reason to doubt the veracity of your claims to accountability and transparency in the boardroom.

More than simply bad public relations, the diversion of valuable and much-needed donations from those in genuine need is the real crime. Without corporate funding, the nonprofit sector in South Africa grinds to an unedifying halt with all the societal effects that entails.

It is imperative that to both do good and be seen to be doing good that business does its homework on where its CSI donations end up, all of them. To not enforce this kind of financial discipline on the charity industry is tantamount to playing fast and loose with your shareholders money and not least with the lives of those we publicly commit to uplift.

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