Social impact: you’ll know you’re successful when you’re no longer needed

What’s the fundamental role that non-profit organisations (NPO) and the broader social impact community should play in South African society? And how do they know when they are successful or not? These were the questions asked by Stu Walker, director of iThemba Projects, at Nation Builder’s recent In Good Company conference – and the answers were both profoundly illuminating and deeply uncomfortable at the same time.

iThemba Projects operates in the Sweetwaters community, in Mpumuza in Kwa-Zulu Natal. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the iThemba team realised that a nationwide lockdown was inevitable. They considered distributing food parcels to alleviate food insecurity as people lost their jobs. But when they discussed their plans with the community leadership, they were surprised by the response: no food parcels.

Instead, the leaders said, they should extend their existing project to introduce food gardens into schools, into vulnerable households. The community had realised that growing their own food, not hand-outs, was the solution to securing food resilience and genuine sustainability.

And that, says Stu, is the main role of a social impact initiative: empowering communities to be sustainable. “Find a need and solve it in the long term. Do not make the people dependent, but rather restore their dignity by giving them the key ingredients for future success,” he says.

In South Africa, we often think that because the social impact community meets broad social needs within disadvantaged communities, everything they do must automatically be ‘good work’. But the starting point for any meaningful restoration must be that the community decides what it needs, instead of a corporate donor or an NPO ‘deciding’ for them.

There are now over 400 food gardens established in the Sweetwaters community, of which 200 have already produced a healthy harvest. As World Food Day, on 16 October, was highlighting the plight of hungry and undernourished people across the world (which has been exacerbated by the pandemic), the community was realising it was able to help itself in this time of Covid-19. A feeling of hope has returned to the area.

Ironically, iThemba’s key measure of success will be when it is no longer needed. Stu recalls his mentor, Dr Francis Njoroge from Kenya, asking him when iThemba would close down. He was confused. But Baba Francis explained that social impact initiatives are supposed to solve problems, not be there forever.

In other words, a social impact initiative’s true measure of success will be to empower its community to the point where it no longer needs any external assistance to allow it to thrive. In this way, the changes in the community will last long after the project has ended. The donor, or the project, is not the hero in the story: the heroes are those who have risen to the challenge to change their lives by successfully participating in the project.

What if every social impact initiative were to have an ‘exit strategy’ approach, where they might have a one-month, one-year, five-year, or 10-year time frame? It would certainly help corporate donors and the social impact community focus far more clearly on their objectives.

In fact, Stu Walker’s approach is a powerful reminder for all of us in the corporate social impact space of how we should operate. Listen to the community upfront. Then aim to exit, by making them so sustainable that they don’t need you anymore. Then move on to the next project. Now that’s how to build a nation.