NGOs serve the gap in the market between what the public sector can provide for its citizens and what they can afford in the private sector. They therefore serve a vital role in providing affordable or free services to the most vulnerable in our society in sectors that are spread too thin for government to successfully support on their own. They should therefore rather be looked at as partners of social development than charities with their hands out – they work hard to do the things others can’t and we need them as much as they need us.

This need is evident in the growing number of NGOs over the past few years (from 140 000 in 2015 to 250 000 in 2020). Unfortunately, this has also placed strain on limited resources they all compete for, which means many have to either cut back on their services or close their doors for good.

The current Covid-19 pandemic has just placed even more strain on NGOs (which are found in almost every sector imaginable) and thousands will have to close their doors this year, which will have devastating effects on communities and the economy as a whole. It is crucial that to ensure the sustainability of these NGOs as well as reap the full social benefits for the company, the NGO and society, when companies do work with NGOs, they commit to a long-term relationship.  A perfect example would be schools such as The Love Trust’s Nokuphila School in Tembisa: they are investing in the education of their learners from the age of four (pre-primary) all the way to grade seven (when the learner is at least 13 or 14 years old).

To make sure that no child gets left behind, The Love Trust needs the peace of mind that a long-term partnership with the private sector can provide sustainable education for children’s primary school career.  Sadly, according to Erik van den Top, Head of Strategy and Governance at The Love Trust, that’s rarely the case as many companies change their CSI strategies roughly every three years aligned with their company strategy or according to government requirements.

Besides company strategies, government regulations play a massive role when companies plan their CSI strategies. Basically, the higher the points on your BEE scorecard, the more likely your business is to be selected as a service provider to other enterprises and government departments, and if it provides a wonderful photoshoot moment even better. As a result, BEE status has become a real strategic concern for the majority of South African businesses.

Unfortunately, when companies do their CSI strategy planning in isolation and then choose NGOs that fit those needs at that time, the positive impacts on the business, NGO and society are diluted. This is usually because by their very nature for-profit businesses don’t have the expertise, time or knowledge to tackle community based social issues, which is typically the realm of NGOs.  The unintended consequence of the short-term approach is that it doesn’t provide the NGOs with the security they need to plan for the long-term.  This usually includes really high delivery expectations on very tight budget limitations.  NGOs are basically asked for short term miracles on a shoestring budget without an eye on the long term sustainability.  One could argue that doesn’t make sound business sense.

Lindsay Owen, The Love Trust’s fundraiser, has a vision of the future where companies bring their social experts to the table when planning their CSI strategies. That way the NGOs better understand the needs and requirements of the company and can help them plan accordingly, thereby offering a more effective and innovative strategy to achieve BEE benefits for the company and greater support for the NGO. This also opens up the opportunity for NGOs to collaborate with one another which can enlarge the scope and reach of the CSI programme. By working with the experts directly, in this way companies will also have greater ownership of the initiatives and may be more willing to commit long-term support, which provides the NGOs with more security and ultimately realises greater measurable social impact.

Owen also laments the fact that NGOs within the ECD space are not organised enough and that “until [they] become more organised and more collaborative and start to look at partnerships, [they’re] just going to be fighting for that little piece of the pie all the time and [they’re] never really going to be able to actually lift [themselves] up.”

In closing Van den Top felt it important to highlight that “NGOs are performing a critical part in supporting government and business to achieve their sustainability goals though working at grassroots level, where there is a severe need. For us, our focus is to provide quality education to the most vulnerable, so they have a chance in life to be employed, to create a better life for themselves and their families, and to contribute meaningfully to the economy and their communities.  So, taking a long-term view, through quality, holistic education, we empower people and hopefully improve society.”

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