Working in the field of community development with both funders and their implementing partners I am constantly looking for innovative and creative ways to solve social issues.
Because of the amount of research and benchmarking that I conduct I am always interested in new development or investment models, flagship and signature programmes, or programmes with high impact and return. But during the last year it has become noticeable how little communication there is about:
- new approaches to development
- outcomes and impact of development programmes
- real change affected through the funding and implementation of development programmes
- or simply good programmes that made a real difference in the lives of ordinary people.
At first I thought I am not using search engines correctly or I may be using the wrong social media platforms or I am using the wrong search terms. I started looking at information provided in sustainability and integrated reports, but in vain.
I am now convinced the reason for the lack of good stories or the absence of meaningful communication about work conducted by funders and intermediaries in the public domain is much more complex for a number of reasons, namely that funders:
- don’t know which story to tell to specific audiences, indicating that they don’t know what people would like to read about
- are not ready to share the outcome or impact of implemented programmes, maybe because a programme has not yielded the expected results
- don’t want to be seen tooting their own horn – but surely talking about good work shows the heart and soul of a company, or the fact that a company cares, or that a company is really interested in contributing to the economy and the country in which it is operating.
What I don’t understand is that funders actually have dedicated resources for marketing and communicating their community investment and development programmes. Furthermore, they have access to internal resources (marketing and communication departments) that are equipped and skilled to write, distribute and communicate these stories.
Everyone loves a good story and development stories provide such great opportunities to give a human face to a corporate brand, and there is opportunity to garner support for these initiatives from other company stakeholders. Yet for some reason corporate funders specifically chose to hide their community stories on corporate websites where not even employees can find them. Well, I don’t know about you, but it is a very big ask to expect customers, suppliers, and other company stakeholders to go and find your website and search for these stories.
Furthermore, once these stories are found the content supporting the story is very flimsy. Stories are mostly told through pictures and some through anecdotal evidence. There is very little substance to such stories and this negates the value of social/community investment and development.
And don’t even get me started on the haphazard way that social/community investment is reported on in sustainability and integrated reports. One thing has become clear to me: Very few (I can name only five) social investment practitioners and managers know anything about reporting requirements for social value/capital, social investment, community development or developmental impact as envisaged in international reporting standards (GRI and IIRC). If they had known, they would have much more guidance and clarity of what to write in these reports.
At the moment the only news that get shared is:
- how much money is being spent on community/social investment and development
- which investment portfolios are being funded (education, health, etc.)
- and a few pictures of programmes in action.
The lack of good news stories then of course perpetuates the belief that community investment is only done:
- because it is legislated
- as a ways and means for a company to obtain BEE points
- for publicity/marketing reasons.
This is quite simply because there is no link between the value and impact of social/community investment for the company or its stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Whenever people in the industry come together one thing is always mentioned: “The media don’t want to publish good news stories.” I am now convinced that it is a case of expecting journalists to find these stories. Also, the stories that are presented have so little substance – it is mostly about the donor and the money and less about the outcomes/impact within a social or development context – that there is simply not enough of a compelling story. Added to this is the fact that most companies want the media at the start/kick-off of a programme but very few practitioners and managers follow up or present the unfolding story over time or involve their partners or beneficiaries in the stories or allow them to tell the development story from their own perspective.
What is even more concerning are the community/social practitioners who are persuaded to share good news stories – and then pay to publish these stories in industry-specific publications. This means the same stories are told within the industry, mostly only positive news is shared – without substantial evidence – and more importantly: The news remains an industry secret.
This has led me to believe:
- There might be no good news to be told, which would surely reflect very badly on us as an industry.
- We don’t have the time to tell good news stories. The implication is that the same mistakes are being made repeatedly in a development context because no one really shares bad news or lessons learnt about development that could influence current/future development practices.
- We don’t know how and what to communicate – and this makes us look incompetent.
- The absence of good news and specifically development stories informs the belief that nothing is being done by companies or their development partners – and the country is on the brink of complete failure. I know so much is being done by so many people, but you have to really work hard to find these.
We live in difficult times. We are being bombarded by bad news every day. There has never been a more opportune time for funders to share their good news stories. We all need to know and believe that we are working collectively to make South Africa a better place. We need hope right now and now is the time to tell the good social/community development stories.