CEO Sleep out

Why doing good just isn’t good enough

By: Gavin Weale

From where I’m sitting, I can see the Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg being prepared for the 2016 CEO Sleepout. It looks like a Broadway production. A major traffic artery closed for 48 hours, with the bridge adorned with mock-ups of shacks, cardboard boxes, security fencing and sponsors’ messages and hoardings, getting ready for some of the nation’s top business-leaders to spend a night sleeping ‘rough’ to raise awareness – and ZAR 40 million – for charitable causes.

Meanwhile on South African Twitter, opinion is split. Search #CEOSleepOut2016 and you’ll find legions of side-eyeing commentators asking what the point is, and suggesting it’s both an insulting gesture to the homeless and a major inconvenience to everyday Jozi commuters. Scroll down and you’ll discover an almost equally vociferous counter-squad of respondents complaining about lefties and ‘haters’ who criticise people trying to ‘do good’… and what are they doing to raise money for ‘good causes’? So what’s all the fuss about?

It’s wrong to dismiss the sceptics of these audacious acts of ‘social consciousness’. A critical eye should be cast on such an aggressively promoted publicity stunt that some corporates (with less than admirable histories of caring for the communities they operate in) use to weave a narrative that guarantees their place in heaven.

And there’s a problem in South Africa with the idea of ‘doing good’ and supporting ‘good causes’ in the lack of evidence on whether it’s changing anything whatsoever. The CEO Sleepout raises awareness among who? And to what end? On even the most basic evaluation, it makes the promise of the CEO Sleepout Twitter page of ‘moving profit to purpose’ look facile and disingenuous. Never mind the distasteful staging of shutting down an inner city bridge and mimicking the suffering of the thousands of genuinely homeless people that city-dwellers see every day. As the Twitterati asked, if you wanted to raise awareness of racism as a white person in South Africa, would you black yourself up for a day in solidarity? To raise awareness of homelessness, why not invite homeless people into your home instead and listen to their stories? This symbolism matters. And Sleepout participants should more intelligently about how to wield their corporate social responsibility budgets.

In 2016, ‘purpose-driven’ business is a zeitgeist on the rise, and its potential in South Africa is far from being truly realised. But it’s a smokescreen that clouds a more difficult conversation that this country doesn’t seem to be having about the sense of social responsibility we as citizens, employees or entrepreneurs should have.

I should know, because I launched Livity Africa, a purpose-driven company, five years ago, based on the original UK Livity model launched in 2001. And looking back at my quite recent self, I can trace the elements of my own ‘saviour’ complex thinking the social innovation projects I’d worked on in the UK could be transplanted to an African context. I recognise that the need to move continents to pursue this social enterprise adventure was driven more by my own personal ambition than any well thought-through evidence that my experience or knowledge was either wanted or needed. Mostly, I had something to prove to myself.

I hope that over the years I’ve let go of the sense of having a personal crusade and gradually begun to understand my own privilege and the context in which Livity Africa now works in to try and make change happen.

But let’s not be defensive about realising these things. Five years of blood, sweat and tears of building this company later, my overriding feeling is not of my own piety, but more that we could and should be doing so much more. We think our purpose should be stronger, less compromising, and always improving. It needs to be measured, evaluated, criticised, made better. It needs to be unflinchingly targeted on proving we can justify our promise of creating sustainable change.

The indignity of those people defending the CEO Sleepout ignores the question of how this sustainable change actually happens. Only by examining our attitudes and approach to ‘purpose’, by pushing harder to use evidence and data to prove our work, and by asking ourselves ‘are we doing enough?’, will we start to understand how we move the needle on social challenges like unemployment, homelessness and gender inequality.

Donating blankets and raising money through sponsored acts of extreme sports has its place to support local causes, but systemic change doesn’t happen that way. Sure, give millions to charity, but who and what you give to, and for what reason, is more important than what fanfare you give it with.

If you’re ‘doing good’ because it makes you feel good about yourself, it’s just not good enough.

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