Being quite unique in its structure and entrepreneurial approach, Mergon is positioned as a significant role player in both the business and the social sectors in South Africa. Founded in 1980, the investment group is 70% owned by an independent foundation, established to create Kingdom impact through effective partnerships with ministries and not-for-profit organisations (NPOs) in South Africa and beyond.
As a result of the group’s growing experience across both sectors, it regularly looks inward to ask itself how the group can best use its cross-sector experience and leverage relationships, influence and insights to be catalysts for extraordinary impact.
The result of an unequal society
The challenge is that South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world and carries a legacy of social injustice. There is a growing awareness in the business sector that it cannot simply focus on profit alone and that it also needs to play a role in making a positive difference in society – commonly referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Pieter Faure, group CEO at Mergon says that several challenges significantly reduces the intended social impact of funds allocated, such as:
A lack of understanding business and NPOs have of each other’s contexts, constraints and drivers;
Misalignment around the appropriate nature and timing of fund deployment; and
A lack of trust and power at play, resulting in tiresome reporting requirements and inaccuracy of the true social impact achieved.
Away with donor and beneficiary mindsets
Faure says Mergon realised they would need to develop and encourage a collaborative mindset under the business sector.
“We needed to create a space where businesses could deepen their understanding of the social sector, discover their own blind-spots and learn to work with each other. On the NPO side, we would need to build a deeper level of appreciation for the skills that the business sector can bring, as well as the unique drivers and pressures they face, such as reporting on the proven and verifiable impact of their social investments,” says Faure.
“To close the loop, we needed to establish a deeper level of trust between businesses and NPOs and work together as peers rather than as donors and beneficiaries. In a nutshell, we had to create scalable platforms for constructive engagement that would lead to effective partnerships and best practice approaches.”
Build a community, build a nation
As a result, Nation Builder was launched in 2012, borne out of Mergon’s core values and long-term partnership approach. The sole purpose of Nation Builder was to equip and inspire the business community towards greater social impact through effective partnership and collaboration within and across business and the NPO sectors.
Three key principles underpinned the Nation Builder approach:
The selfless pursuit of a common goal. Nation Builder essentially took Mergon out of the centre of the conversation by founding a separate brand. In this “neutral” space, businesses can selflessly contribute their time, knowledge and experience for the greater social good.
Valuing each person’s unique role and contribution. In an environment made up of trust and respect, each participant shares lessons learnt through successes and failures.
Going beyond conversation to collaboration and co-creation. A team of dedicated individuals ensures action is taken beyond conversations to develop learnings into case studies, tools and resources to serve participants and the broader industry.
A community unfolding
“The journey that has unfolded has been that of a proverbial mustard seed growing beyond our greatest expectations,” says Faure.
A panel of twelve industry experienced individuals from eight businesses met over a period of 18 months to co-create an online self-assessment benchmarking tool that would assist corporate and mid-sized businesses to rate their social investment approach (from the board, through to strategy, employee engagement, partnership approach, monitoring and evaluation). To date, over 150 businesses have completed the assessment and received the associated resources.
Faure says that the true surprise that unfolded was the ‘community’ that formed between these twelve individuals over the 18 months. Whilst the tools and resources are of high-quality and undoubtedly have much value, the real change in perspective happens through new-found relationships where people can listen and learn from one another in this neutral, collaborative space.
It was inevitable to re-focus the strategy towards the scaling of these peer-learning groups, called Collabs. Creating hubs in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town, these collaboratives are made up of over 150 businesses that collectively invest approximately $50 million annually towards social impact in South Africa.
Over four years, these collective groups have developed multiple tools and resources,
including the social investment self-assessment, as well as an online hub of knowledge pieces and case studies and a series of resources on how to best partner for social impact.
The current national initiative to standardise reporting between business and NPOs will alleviate a huge amount of duplication of effort, allowing for better information gathering and encourage greater transparency in the industry.
The journey ahead
Over the past six years, Nation Builder has taken a more holistic view of how business is uniquely positioned as a platform to be a force for good. The initiative hosts the annual “In Good Company” conference, and regular topical conversations via webinars on the Nation Builder’s online community.
Soon it will also be possible for business and NPOs to host Collabs in any city or town across South Africa with the help of a self-steering Collab toolkit.
This year will also see the launch of church based Collabs aimed at inspiring and equipping those responsible for mobilising social investment through their church communities towards greater effectiveness.
Catalyst for impact
Faure concludes that both businesses and NPOs equally need the other in partnership to navigate the complexities and contexts in which they function in order to become catalysts for extraordinary social impact. Each entity has the potential to use their business as a powerful force for good within South Africa.
Nation Builder is an initiative of the Mergon group. www.mergon.co.za