22/12/2016 04:58 SAST | Updated 22/12/2016 07:05 SAST

CEO SleepOut Is But One Example Of Business Going Beyond The CSI Tick Box

If charitable giving becomes law, will companies really try to find solutions if they’re simply required to donate a certain amount each year?

Gallo Images /City Press/ Leon Sadiki
People gather for the Sun International CEO SleepOut initiative at the Nelson Mandela bridge on July 29, 2016 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Once relegated to a small part of HR departments' CSI budgets, the idea of corporates participating more meaningfully in social change is now front and centre at the boardroom table. Big business, locally and abroad, has committed to corporate philanthropy; ensuring that contributing to non-profits is part of their business plan.

Globally, CEOs, entrepreneurs and influencers are being urged to find creative solutions to social injustice – and they're stepping up. Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, implemented a Matching Gift Programme that matches employee donations to charities, dollar for dollar, up to $10,000 annually. Microsoft matches employee nonprofit donations and volunteering year round up to $15,000 per employee.

It's not just Silicon Valley that's leading the trend. Even governments are asking for more from business. In April, 2014, India wrote corporate philanthropy into law, saying that businesses with annual revenues of more than 10 billion rupees (about R2 billion) must give away 2% of their net profit to charity, specifically in the areas of education, poverty, gender equality and hunger. While the law has been met with some criticism around how the funds are monitored, and where they go, reports show that the private sector's combined charitable spend increased from around 33.67 billion rupees in 2013 to around 250 billionn rupees after the law was enforced.

Locally, business big-wigs are following in the footsteps of Bill Gates and mark Zuckerburg when it comes to using their profits for purpose. Allan Gray –- the fuorth-richest South African, according to Forbes –- in January announced he and his family would donate the profits from their entire company assets to charity, through The Allan and Gill Gray Foundation. In 2013, Patrice Motsepe, the chairperson of African Rainbow Minerals, also pledged a percentage of his wealth to charity.

And the trend is sweeping through the rest of South Africa's boardrooms too. The CEO Initiative, established by the presidency under the leadership of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, highlights social areas in which business has a significant role to play; education, internships and learnerships, and enterprise development. And other initiatives are also on-board. The CEO SleepOut, for example, asks business leaders to spend a night sleeping outdoors, raising funds and gaining empathy for the homeless. Over 400 C-suite members have participated in two years. Since their inaugural event in 2015, they've awarded over R34 million to charities, including Boys and Girls Town, Asha Trust, Columba Leadership and The Steve Biko Foundation. It's an event that doesn't only raise funds, but hopes to instill a deeper awareness and commitment to change in our leaders –- one that, crucially, goes above and beyond the traditional CSI tick-box mentality.

That's the danger of making giving back a law; will companies really try to find solutions if they're simply required to donate a certain amount each year? Won't they believe they've done their part? Brand South Africa board chairperson Khanyisile Kweyama, while speaking recently at the 2016 In Good Company conference, argued that companies should be more creative and courageous in the way they allocate CSI budgets locally. Far too often, she said, companies look at CSI as charitable spending rather than funds that can make real change.

And that is the key to true corporate philanthropy. It's not just the money that counts. It's that leaders are using their profits and influence to find innovative ways to create a more equal society. In South Africa, especially, sustainable fixes will require a lot more than a hand-out. "What we need is the biggest, most influential leaders to have a change of heart," says The CEO SleepOut Founder, Ali Gregg, "To discuss, brainstorm, and use their connections to create a world that works for everyone."