Real Community Development Will Never Come From South Africa’s CSI Practitioners. Here’s why.

Some months ago, I wrote a rather peremptory article telling NGOs what I thought they needed in order to meet the requirements of potential funders. This is what I listed: 

  1. Bank letter. Get a bank letter confirming your NGO’s account.
  2. NGO registration certificate. Locate it and photocopy it!
  3. Most recent minutes. Have your most recent minutes typed up, dated, and properly formatted.
  4. BBBEE certificate. Get your BBBEE certificate signed and stamped.
  5. SARS letter. Have your tax clearance certificate from SARS ready.
  6. Annual report, including audited financial statement. This is a must. Nothing happens without an audited financial statement.

Honestly! I sat on my high horse/chair, pointing down like a dictator, intimidating NGOs on the minimal standards they had to attain to stand a chance of attracting a second glance by a wealthy corporate.

I now look back and realise we have it all wrong. How will anything ever change for the poor if we are going to insist on these almost unattainable minimum entry requirements to get funding? The entire framework for private sector development is wrong. It excludes, rather than embraces and develops. It prevents access to the very first rung on the ladder. It is unrealistic, inflexible, bureaucratic, and designed to frustrate.

Why do so few find funding?
After The Great Funders’ Conference, congratulatory messages poured in, but I was not happy. The whole point was to streamline funding and open doors between funder and fundraiser. Why, after three years of the conference, are so few NGOs, NPOs and CBOs (community-based organisations) finding meaningful funding?

I believe that in many cases it is because we load an onerous burden onto the shoulders of poor women, whose knowledge of audited financial statements and tax clearance certificates is almost zero. These are women who live and breathe their NPOs and CBOs. They deeply identify with their communities and are out there every day nursing the sick, starting community gardens, empowering mothers, educating their community and challenging the status quo. Yet we expect them to spend precious days and rands chasing after documents that would frustrate the most efficient of us.

Five years’ audited financial statements
I mean, think about it. Who among us can produce last year’s financial statements at the drop of a hat, even with computers and easy access to a bank? Yet a company I know requires five years’ worth of audited financial statements.  Are these people buying a house? Who set these ridiculous rules and why must we follow these insane, unachievable prescriptions? 

Herein, ladies and gentleman, lies the problem.  NGOs and CBOs are born of desperation. They are responding to the slow crises that unravel society, and here we are demanding documentation that makes it all but impossible for them to get funding.

That is the problem, that is why change will never come from us, if we do not change our ways and our demands.

A faulty framework
The framework was never designed to help; it was designed to stall and frustrate. The very process is wrong and should be redesigned to suit the current reality – which is that most NGO funders are women.   We know very well these are not MBA students, and we know very well that the average professional would have difficulty producing these documents. Yet we expect the retired teachers and nurses who are sold out on helping their communities to provide them. This is what is meant by systemic injustice. This is how the system keeps the rich, rich and the poor, poor. 

On the surface it looks reasonable, but at its core it is a system that excludes. It is designed by the ‘haves’ (have education, have money, have easy access to institutions) to keep the have-nots out.

What you’ll have to come up with to get a funder’s attention

That is a lot of bureaucracy! So what is the answer? How do funders include rather than exclude, and at the same time ensure that they’re not pouring money into a vast financial sink that produces very little?

Ditch some requirements
I think it is obvious. CSI is not about dispensing money only. It should be about walking the road with the NGO for the first 12 months, helping them to plug the various leaks in their system. It should be about building an industry that will serve us in 30 years.

We could start by retaining the first four requirements – NGO registration, bank letter confirming account, minutes of the last few meetings and the BBBEE certificate. The other two – audited financial statements and SARS letter – can be dropped until such time as the relationship between funder and NGO is already formalised.

As part of that relationship, we as the CSI team need to help the NGO get its systems in shape.  We could:

  • assist with financial record keeping for at least 12 months
  • pay for the auditing of the annual financial statements
  • help (with transport if necessary) to get the SARS letter – which comes with its own set of requirements.

At the end of 12 months we assess; have we made a difference? Is this NGO more systemistised, more stable and more organised? Do we walk further with this NGO? This would be a foundation for real development.

Truly, to develop our country, we need to relook at the development framework. The problem is not with the NGO, it is with the policies and documents that exclude them from sources of help.

If we as CSI managers mean it when we say we want to make a difference, here is a place to start; educate your board of directors on the realities of life for poor rural and urban women. Help them grasp the fact that our demands are too corporate centric, and that the only way we will nurture the real strengths of community changers is to help them in areas where they are weakest.

Funders of NGOs have their strengths, CSI managers have theirs; we need to bring the two together for real community development. If that is a our real goal, then let us get off our high horses and do something practical to help.

Mtetwa Simphiwe
Simphiwe Mtetwa is the Managing Director and Editor-In-Chief for Corporate Social Responsibility News South Africa.

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