The shift toward impact in Corporate Social Investment

01 August 2013 | Tracey Henry | Insight

Historically, corporate social investment has been mostly philanthropic. Over the past five decades we have seen enormous shifts in the practice of social investment – it has grown in complexity and in the face of demands for greater accountability.

These changes have been entrenched through legislative changes such as the BEE Act and BBBEE codes, and the new Companies Act’s social and ethics committees. It is also driven by a need to be able to demonstrate impact and by a move away from the feel-good and anecdotal. Just as with any investment made, you want to understand what change it has effected and whether the money is being applied strategically to contribute to positive change, particularly in critical areas in South Africa. If you are not able to demonstrate impact it is going to become more and more difficult to meet the needs of all your stakeholders.

Tshikululu Social Investments has, over the past 15 years, developed and implemented processes and tools to manage social investment programmes and data, both qualitative and quantitative, across a number of areas.

In our early days we implemented a data management system to record all documentation related to each beneficiary organisation. This system has become the main portal through which we input data relating to project visits, grant letters, minutes of grant approvals, financial information, demographic and beneficiary data and reporting on key milestones. It now covers 30,000 organisations that we have partnered with over the past 15 years. Advantages of the system include the ability to call up data in a particular field or geographical sector in order to gain a bird’s-eye view of what interventions are taking place across all our clients, which becomes particularly important when looking to encourage collaboration in a particular sector or area and to avoid duplication of effort.

Our approach is based on an inclusive model, working closely with beneficiary organisations to define goals and objectives, establish performance targets and define indicators that will be used to measure a programme’s success. This has required significant effort to ensure buy-in and to prevent a situation where beneficiary partners view monitoring and evaluation as punitive as opposed to a capacity-building intervention.

We also ensure that our funders’ programme objectives are realistic in terms of how we define success in order to prevent us from setting up non-profits for failure. This requires funders to appreciate the complexities of development and not to simply focus on short-term gains. Development can take longer than anticipated, and our monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes are predicated on having the flexibility to adapt and change. M&E are only useful processes if they are structured to feed back into the implementation of social development projects.

Thus we believe that if it turns out that outputs and outcomes are not aligned to targets set at the outset it is not the time to abandon ship or stop funding. Rather, this is a critical time to assess a project’s strengths and weaknesses and to identify areas for improvement going forward. Having said this, given limited resources and a greater emphasis on impact measurement, there comes a time when we do have to exit a project, and then we need to do it with grace and in a way that will ensure the ongoing sustainability of an organisation.

M&E should not only be confined to beneficiary organisations or NGOs. We believe that to improve the practice of social investment, funders also need to evaluate their own performance. This is what we did in 2010. Tshikululu commissioned an independent study among non-profit organisations that we have worked with over a number of years. The feedback was honest and constructive. The most significant suggestion was that we streamline our reporting templates. So we went back to the drawing board and standardised a number of our internal processes, known by Tshikululu collectively as the Social InvestmentP (corporate social investment process), to enhance our engagement with non-profits and in the process to ensure that monitoring by non-profits and data collection was simplified. We continuously review and refine these processes.

Managing the quality of data is critical. What goes in is what you get out. So our internal processes, combined with our data system, assist our managers and staff to maintain data reliability. This does require an M&E mind-set or culture in an organisation.

So when we talk about rules and tools to ensure data quality, all of this is dependent on the following:

  • Leadership that embraces the value of M&E and is prepared to invest time and resources to do it right.
  • People – not only M&E specialists but also Social Investment practitioners who embrace M&E and who are held accountable in terms of their own key performance indicators.
  • It is important to have a clear process in place to guide you when choosing a data management system. The process needs to be documented and embedded in your organisational DNA.
  • There are numerous systems available to manage data. But they can only be as good as the people who analyse the data. Thus we rely on people who understand the development sector and recognise and understand the interconnectedness among beneficiary communities, project implementers and funders.

Impact measurement is no longer something that is nice to have. As South Africans there are a lot of good people who want to make a difference but we have to look beyond our own needs to how we can constructively contribute toward societal issues. We also need to remember our ultimate end goal, which is improving the lives of communities, ensuring that change leads to positive improvements, and ultimately contributing to our National Development Plan’s Vision 2030.

When it comes to these ambitious goals to reduce poverty and inequality it is very important that the corporate sector be able to say exactly what they are doing and what impact it is having, and to be able to communicate this to all stakeholders involved.