Corporate social investment is a great way for companies – and for estates – to give back to the community. But, while any CSI is a good thing, there is a huge difference between merely diverting funds to a good cause and actually getting involved with the community on a person-to-person basis. The former – at best – improves living standards for the target community, while the latter builds real relationships that can grow into an ongoing circle of benefit.
Partners for Possibility
From the moment the Mbekamuzi School Choir began to sing at the Simbithi Eco-Estate Clubhouse in Ballito, the enthusiasm was palpable. The closing celebration for the North Coast chapter of Partners for Possibility’s (PfP) third leadership circle was clearly a highly anticipated occasion. Attendees were dressed to the nines in flamboyant cotton prints, colourful dresses, saris, suits, headdresses and hats, many borrowing eclectically from various strands of South African cultural heritage.
PfP is run by Symphonia for South Africa (SSA), a social enterprise that strives to mobilise active citizenship around the significant issues facing South Africa. PfP is their flagship programme in which business leaders are partnered with school principals in order to strengthen leadership capacity. Over the course of one year, each set of partners goes through a structured leadership programme comprising capacity-building workshops, community of practice (COP) sessions, peer learning, leadership coaching, and – most importantly – tackling real challenges in schools, and learning from the process. Information is shared through a COP called a leadership circle, which comprises eight to 10 partnerships in the same geographic area, and that meets every six weeks to share experiences and lessons.
PfP works on the principle that strengthening the leadership capacities of adults in and around schools will benefit the learners. Ultimately, the school sits at the centre of an entire community, rippling positive change outwards. Although the formal programme lasts just one year, the robust networks it creates remain strong, and continue to benefit partners and communities thereafter.
Advantages for HOAs
Estates throughout the country engage in various forms of corporate social investment (CSI) in attempts to improve living conditions for all South Africans, build connections with neighbouring communities, and challenge a common perception that estates are bastions of isolated privilege. Those involved in PfP feel that their model can be uniquely beneficial for residential communities thinking about CSI.
Homeowners associations are, after all, not like other corporate structures. Malcolm Samuel, General Manager of the SEEHOA (Simbithi Eco-Estate Homeowners Association), told Louise van Rhyn, Founder and Director of SSA, that prior to joining forces with PfP, ‘our CSI programme was diverting attention from the core management functions of the organisation. There was no focus. We were doing things, but we didn’t really understand what it was we should be doing, and I wondered about the impact we were making.’
Changes in board members, personnel and residents further make it difficult to maintain momentum in HOA-run CSI, to say nothing of concerns for residents’ safety. ‘There are serious political tensions in this area,’ Malcolm told Louise. ‘Education, I thought, was a safe gateway into the community.’
A win-win solution
According to Louise, the PfP model encourages a greater ‘sense of equality and neighbourliness. People in Simbithi now feel that they have a connection to people in the area. It’s no longer an “us and them” situation.’ The programme as a whole is more sustainable by virtue of its being part of an established and continually running organisation, but its longevity is bolstered by the active involvement of home owners. ‘They have skin in the game as a result of this programme,’ says Louise. PfP asks residents to ‘share their knowledge, skills, experience, and networks. It’s not just chequebook philanthropy where they hand over a cheque and turn their backs on what’s going on. Their hearts and their minds and their bodies are engaged. Once you’ve been engaged in that way, it’s very difficult to just act as if that community has nothing to do with you. You get pulled in to be part of the solution.’
Since the first leadership circle, PfP North Coast has included business leaders from SEEHOA, residents and management staff. Their efforts were recognised early on. A February 2018 article in the North Coast Courier called the work of the first leadership circle ‘a true celebration of the rainbow nation’. Although nearby Shakas Head – the focus of PfP’s efforts, and where many of Simbithi’s employees live – is a world away from Simbithi in terms of affluence, Malcolm stressed to the Courier his commitment to equal partnership with principals as he ‘did not want to adopt, hand out or undignify anyone by what we were going to do.’ A 4 October 2019 Courier article praised the programme’s third leadership circle as accomplishing ‘the work Mandela dreamed about.’
Camaraderie and gratitude were on full show at the third closing celebration in the things people said and, at times, the tears they shed. Through a series of videos, each business leader-principal partnership told those present about their experiences during the previous year. Depending on the school’s needs, activities ranged from accessing corporate sponsorship networks for building concrete structures like school kitchens to fostering essential skills for addressing management challenges. But one thing was consistent in every video: both partners were irrevocably changed, having learned more about themselves and the world around them. Tellingly, several expressed their closeness through the language of kinship and family. That the clubhouse restaurant commits to buying any produce that the North Coast Agricultural College – a school that benefited from a previous partnership with Simbithi’s financial manager – cannot sell to the surrounding community demonstrates the durability of the relationships forged.
At the end of her vote of thanks, Terry Dearling, the leadership facilitator, asked the crowd to help her illustrate the programme’s vision of change: ‘It takes one flame to light a nation. And what I’d like to do is prove that this evening.’ Each person present took up a candle at their place setting, and Terry lit one of them, imploring that person to light others’ candles and for each person to pass on their flame in turn. Soon, the dimmed room was lit with the warm glow of candlelight from dispersed flames, an apt metaphor for the warm goodwill that bathed all present.