Moving The Lines — Challenging Assumptions About Being A Sustainable Business

​This post was adapted from a presentation given by Charmaine Smith, Director of Infuno Consulting, at Nation Builder’s annual In Good Company conference on 15 August 2019.

Real impact happens when we look outside our business and start changing the boundaries. This is according to Charmaine Smith, a Director of Infundo Consulting, who has been involved in Social Development projects across South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia,  and worked with corporate and government structures, global leaders and everyone in between.
She says that in an economy which is fraught with difficulties, many of the rules which governed business in the past no longer work. Making money was once the chief gauge of success in business, but with a global-social economy which is no longer functioning as it should, we must consider how we can sustain businesses in the long term. Business relies on the social economy but social economy relies on business. Infundo works in communities countrywide and has begun sensing real hopelessness among the populace. Jobs give us purpose and a means of looking after our families. Those unemployed or facing retrenchment become demoralised and excluded.
Smith visited two communities recently to source young Matriculants for a learnership programme. Hundreds of young folk turned out, all having the required documentation; some were nearing 30 years of age. She could only offer opportunities to 15 in each community.
“We can choose to consciously create social impact that brings massive, long-term change or we can choose to know that we can impact just by being,” Smith challenges.
Are sustainable business and social impact naturally inclusive or exclusive? If inclusive, what connection enables us to do both in a good way? In sustainable business, how can we remain on the sidelines of social impact when we know that good social impact will help to drive our sustainability?
Charmaine acknowledges that when working on projects, she and her team bring preconceived assumptions and rules into business and the communities which they work. But, if they are conscious of these preconceived assumptions, these can be used or broken to bring about social impact.
ASSUMPTION 1: Get someone else to do your social impact so you can earn BEE points
The first assumption Smith wants to be broken is that companies that pay for social service on behalf of someone else, then grant the service or social impact project to beneficiaries who provide B-BBEE points for the company. She believes businesses must look at the long-term plan rather than the short term. They cannot expect overnight results of a lasting nature. Social investment must be for the long haul.
ASSUMPTION 2: Working in social contexts is easy work for junior members of staff
The second assumption is that working in social contexts is easy, and thus junior staff are
 allocated to projects to learn the craft. This is not so. “You need multi-layered, very highly professional people who have high levels of skill to work there,” explains Smith. Infundo uses executive coaches and facilitators from the corporates to work in the communities. They learn so much that they love coming back repeatedly as they reap great insight into future challenges, the state of the economy and current market. This knowledge is also valuable to the corporate environment when the staff members return.
ASSUMPTION 3: Consultants know everything
The third preconceived idea is that consultants have to know it all when they arrive. But Charmaine believes that within scientific design processes, the community in which a project is being implemented decides the pace, depth and timing of the project. Smith does not impose the company’s views on the community they are assisting. The projects are completely community-centric, and thus a sense of ownership within the community follows.
ASSUMPTION 4: It is unfair to earn profit when working in community upliftment
It is often assumed that it is unfair to create a profit when working with people who do not have what we have. An illustration of this rule being broken is the number of affordable private schools which have sprung up in recent years. They offer a massive social service to communities where it would not be possible if the business was not sustained through fees paid.
ASSUMPTION 5: We have all the knowledge that disadvantaged communities need
Assumption five suggests when working in social impact projects our role is to teach the beneficiaries what we know — a transfer of knowledge. Yet some of the best solutions have been developed by people within communities who understand the context better than outside consultants do. An example is The Honeybee Network, a database of innovations, shared by rural people from 75 countries, and available to anyone seeking a solution.
ASSUMPTION 6: Don’t work with the government or unions
Assumption six says when working in a social context it is best to avoid working with government and unions. But Infundo has always had an excellent working relationship with government, district and union structures because they are part of the community. Government is keen to make a difference.  “We drive the same agenda and want the same thing and if we understand how our contradicting loyalties can be leveraged together to go forward, then we can make things work,” concludes Smith.
The global unemployment rate is 29%; a long-term crisis. South Africa has 21 million people between the ages of 15 and 34 of whom 55% are unemployed; 31% of those are unemployed graduates and 32.4% are youth who are not in education or employment training programmes.
Smith thinks that the youth may be our greatest solution to this massive crisis. These same youth are the future markets which will sustain our businesses and are the greatest potential for change in the country. We must access all opportunities if we are to turn the tide on the unemployment crisis.
Charmaine Smith is a director at Infundo Consulting and has been involved in social development and transformation projects across South Africa and in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. She has extensive experience in working with corporate partners, government structures, tribal and rural leaders, schools, foundations and trusts, NPOs and social impact partners. An educator and connector at heart, her passion is to create a sustainable vehicle for driving social impact through working on the ground in communities and leveraging this knowledge to work more strategically, at a policy level, to create significant change.