Concerned Corporations, Consumers & Communities

Posts tagged ‘Corporate Philanthropy’

Tackling Education is More Than Just Building Schools

Can you reasonably expect your company to succeed just by purchasing/renting an office space?

Can you reasonably expect your company to succeed just by purchasing/renting an office space?

It’s a ludicrous question, and a healthy dose of common sense would answer the question.

A company needs more than that to succeed. You need to acquire the tools of production, be it machinery or computers. Then you need sufficient manpower and must ensure that they are well equipped to fulfil the tasks required of them, if not, you increase headcount or send staff for further training.

Next, you have to make sure that your employees are sufficiently motivated and turnover is low (CSR is a great way to address this issue), find the right employees willing to relocate to overseas offices, and if your office is far from amenities, provide transportation, and if not possible, bring the amenities to them or hire employees who live closer to the office. And of course, you must ensure that the company has sufficient cash flow to pay your staff regularly.

Now you can look at your company’s market share. You want to ensure that your product/service pricing is competitive and suitable for your target market, that your product/service is easily accessible, culturally sensitive, instruction manuals are given in the appropriate language, and your products/services are not inherently discriminatory (Yes, we are aware that there are gender/ethnic/religion specific products, which is fine, so long as you aren’t trying to sell jock-straps and wondering why so few women are buying them).

Next you want to consider whether your customers/clients continue to use your products/services. You products/services must be easy to use, and if not, assistance must be readily available, your customer service and after sales service must be adequate, and you may want to consider in what ways your products/services are child-friendly or the circumstances under which they might be contraindicated.

In a way, education intervention is like running a business. For it to truly bring poverty rates down, you need more than the obvious hardware – the school. You need other hardware like schoolbooks and stationery. Then you look at whether there are sufficient teachers and the quality of teaching, and if supply is inadequate, look to improve teacher training and recruitment.

Even if there are sufficient teachers, teacher absenteeism may be high. This may be caused by several reasons. It could be that teachers do not want to teach in minority areas, the school is too far from the town and amenities, low or irregular pay so that they have to farm to provide their own food. These are processes that may take up to a decade to rectify.

Having all these in place, you can now look at enrolment rates of the school. Enrolment rates may be low even with all these in place, and the reasons why must be addressed too. It could be that the family is poor and requires the child to work or help in the farm, the school is too far away, an inability to speak the language of instruction (especially true in ethnically diverse countries), the lack of female toilets or a high occurrence of rape in and en-route to schools (especially in places where female chastity has real economic ramifications).

We must also look at the retention and graduation rates of schools, and if retention rates are high or graduation rates are low, maybe it’s because children are missing school because of harvest or agriculturally intense periods, the method of instruction is poor, or because girls have reached a marriageable age and are now laden with domestic duties of married life.

But ultimately, the most important aspect is whether education really teaches the children any useful skills that they can use to increase their income. This is summed up eloquently by the article “Inputs and Outputs, But No Outcomes” by MJ from Bottom Up Thinking:

Let’s hope that donors… realise that there is a lot more to education than just upping the enrolment rate. Bragging about how many new schools you’ve built counts for little until children start graduating with economically useful skill sets. New schools built, more textbooks provided, additional teachers trained, increased enrolment: these are all useful milestones, but ultimately, only the final outcome counts.

And if that final outcome is not children who have graduated with an education that empowers them to improve their lives, then the next press release about your activities might as well say “$5M pledged to school construction… 200 schools built… 100 not operational… 75 used as communal storage areas… 25 functional… 20 children enrolled/school (operational)… 1 graduate… CEO says ‘we didn’t know about the numbers, but actually we just wanted to take pictures with the newly built schools for our annual report… I don’t suppose the children really matter do they?’.”

Now wouldn’t that make a great PR picture?

Benson Tan is the Managing Consultant of Global Causeways, a Corporate Social Responsibility, Philanthropy and Development Consultancy operating from Singapore. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter, or both.

Unintended Consequences of Changing Your Aid Dollars Annually

Adopting different causes every year cannot be considered Corporate Social Responsibility, and is actually detrimental to the development of poor communities.

In Singapore at least, corporate understanding of CSR is weak, and I can confidently say that most companies consider that giving to a charity is a fulfilment of their CSR obligations (yes shoot me now). But if you think that’s bad, it gets worse. Companies here seem to think jumping from charity to charity serves the company’s interest best by being seen to contribute and satisfy consumer trends (Cue Aceh 2004, Poverty Alleviation 2005, Environmental Conservation 2006, Climate Change 2007, Burma 2008, Climate Change 2009, Haiti 2010, and Japan 2011).

In addition to getting it wrong (giving to charities is corporate philanthropy, and is just a small part of what CSR entails), these seemingly altruistic and well-intentioned actions actually end up doing more harm than good.

It’s well known among development practitioners and academics that it takes at least 5 years to see real progress and that you’d be lucky to see it in 3. (Sure, we’re all looking for that silver bullet, but take any claims to that with a pinch of salt). Yes 5 years. At least. Development is hard work, and there are so many variables involved. You don’t get PhDs in a year, or expect to become a C-suiter in the company if you have joined as an executive the year before, or expect to speak fluent Mandarin after only picking it up in the year before.

But you might still think its ok. As long as corporations give to charities and poor communities everyone wins right?

Well you’re wrong, at least most of the time. It may work for relatively short time-span projects, like building new schools (Don’t even get me started on the problems of fixating on building schools as the solution to education!), wells for access to drinking water, or a complete vaccination program, but sadly, most of development has a longer time-span.

Take funding a child’s education for example. It’s extremely popular for many NGOs to offer you a choice of funding a year of a child’s education for $x/year. Research also shows that the ROI of education is 5 years. This means that it takes at least 5 years before the child and his/her family can see an increase in the child’s income. Also consider the factors working against a child going to school; pressures to help out with subsistence agriculture; pressures to find an odd job to supplement household income; distance of school to home, amongst others.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a subsistence farmer from a poor village in a low-income country, which mind you, has not had the benefit of education, and may be a stranger to the concept of education beyond village elders teaching what needs to be taught. Now this foreign agency comes over and waxes lyrical about the benefits of education, and offers to foot the bill, but that means taking the child away from your income or labour computations. You may think “Well ok, why not, it’s free anyway and they will earn more in the future”. Everyone will have to work harder because you now have one less pair of hands, but hey, it’ll be worth it.

Fast forward a year, and the same agency comes back to tell you funding has stopped, and because you can’t afford to foot the bill, please withdraw your child from the school. Armed with this one year of basic education, your child goes out to see if he/she can find a better paying job, only to realise that he/she gets paid the same amount as anyone who has not been to school. Guess what? By the time your next child comes, or when your child has children, they probably won’t send them to school because to them, schooling increases personal hardship and has no benefits.

The same analogy extends to health vaccinations, where you see your child in pain and feeling weak after the vaccination, and inadequate funding means the child does not get the full treatment and therefore is still prone to the disease. You’re not going to send your next child because to you, it does nothing against the disease and increases personal suffering.
The lack of full funding is also why many NGOs’ community development projects terminates at the pilot stage or cease halfway through the full project term. It’s cruel to raise hopes and deliver disappointment.

We can already see this in the mind-sets of people living in failed or failing democracies. So much is promised with democratisation in the beginning, only to end in the swapping of one democratically elected despot for another with no real benefits for the common man. You lose faith, and it’s so much harder to convince you the next time round that democracy works, only that the implementation is wrong. The culprit? A certain government who practically shoved democracy down many emerging nations’ throats without actually seeing the whole process through, just as long as it’s a democratic government and not a communist one.

(Pardon me, I have digressed, and let me return to my point)

So I argue here that NGOs who run projects without making sure they have the full funds available or the possibility to call on the full funds to see the project through are behaving selfishly and doing a great disservice to themselves and others in the industry. And the corporate strategy of jumping from one cause to another annually just reeks of corporate irresponsibility, and it’s antithetical to the corporate responsibility it claims to be. This is not CSR. Nowhere close. It’s like saying Iceland is in the tropics.

CSR essentially means that a company behaves ethically and considers the social effects and environmental effects with its every action. You have to think about what your trend chasing is doing to the wider community, and if you persist with your trend chasing, then you can be sure I will be exposing your act of corporate irresponsibility.

If you are serious about your CSR or philanthropy; if it comes from the heart, is strategic, well-planned, and is not a trade-off with corporate interest but in fact supports your organization and the community you want to invest in, your consumers will be able to see it, and will respect you for it, even if the cause you adopt is not en vogue this season.

Benson Tan is the Managing Consultant of Global Causeways, a Corporate Social Responsibility, Philanthropy and Development Consultancy operating from Singapore. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter, or both.

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