I was recently part of a panel at FirstRand’s Beyond Painting Classrooms (BPC) event, where many South Africans who are passionate about corporate social investment (CSI) gathered to discuss ways to ensure that employee volunteering is sustainable and impactful, writes Lu.vuyo Madasa, executive director at ReimagineSA.

The fact that we are having these discussions is good news – it’s a welcome step on the road to a more effective and scalable approach to volunteering and CSI.

As the name of the event implies, it’s time for us to move beyond sending volunteers to paint classrooms at schools in poor areas for Mandela Day or dropping in at a creche or retirement home to hand out Christmas gifts. While the beneficiaries usually appreciate these small acts of kindness, corporate volunteering is all too often something that happens to them – rather than in partnership with them.

In practice, that often means armies of corporate volunteers arrive throughout the year to paint walls that were actually painted not so long ago. And in some instances, it means that there is no follow-through after the initial intervention on the part of the volunteers. Once that computer lab is equipped, who will provide the ongoing tech support? And was a computer lab what the school really needed in the first place?


Harmonising efforts

This is why we believe that volunteerism and other corporate interventions need to shift towards an approach that is less piecemeal and bottom-down – one that gives the beneficiary more of a voice, one that engages employees as active citizens, and one that takes a more strategic, long-term approach to making a difference.

Such an approach should harmonise the efforts of all stakeholders, enabling collaboration for the good of society. It is about ensuring that there is intentionality throughout every engagement and in every organisation that participates – synthesising the skills and resources of big companies, the good intentions of the people on the ground, and the requirements and capabilities of the beneficiaries.

What we are advocating is an approach that shifts away from charitable giving towards sustainable impact. Instead of behaving like donors, we believe that companies and their volunteers should think of themselves as patrons of social impact. That means partnership with beneficiaries to help them to help themselves.


Bringing together profit and purpose

For example, why just put a couple of computers in a classroom and call it lab? Is there a possibility to teach someone at the school to support the technology and perhaps even grow this into a profitable business that serves the community? How do we unlock more value from these interventions to create virtuous circle of profit and purpose?

It’s also key for us to start thinking about poverty alleviation, social change and education in a more systemic manner. Small interventions at a classroom level don’t address the wider failings in our educational system. Helping a homeless person today is important – but how do we address the larger causes of homelessness? While the efforts should start at the grassroots, but they should also have a long-term focus.

This is why we believe in an ecosystem approach that engages all stakeholders to make a difference – from the company that wants to make wise CSI investments to the citizen who wants to help build a better country to anyone who wants something “better” for themselves and for their community. People and communities should be at the epicentre of these efforts, with partners and patrons serving as the catalysts for change.

Now is the time to start having conversations about how we can change our country for the better. Collective action is key to unlocking inclusive growth, scaling up successful social initiatives and building the South Africa we wish our children to inherit from us.