Nation Builder Top Tip: Social Investment and Building Projects
Written by Paul Pereira, owner of WHAM Media, and part of the Nation Builder collaborative platform.
Although corporate social investment (CSI) work is all about people, the infrastructure needed to carry it out is obviously necessary. Even so, there are good reasons why many donors try to avoid getting involved in building projects: they are expensive, complicated, and risky.
Yet the reality is that much of the work that is needed in social development takes place in areas of few facilities and often NGO or institutional partners cannot be truly effective in their work unless they engage in capital expenditure in the form of buildings.
Donors will be aware that entering such projects is a long-horizon process that requires close attention to detail, involved participation, and, often, deep pockets. Should you decide to go ahead with a building project, then here are some things to consider:
Be sure that the project is necessary and that the proposed solution is fit to purpose now and in the foreseeable future. Avoid vanity projects and “nice-to-haves”.
Do not imagine that there are easy ways to sidestep complexity in building projects, whether yours is a from-scratch building, the refurbishment of existing facilities, or the donation of an existing facility.
In every case, it is best that the donor remains closely involved throughout the construction/refurbishment process, with an eye on ensuring that the people who are intended to benefit from the project have an outcome that suits the intended purposes, and that costs are carefully disciplined and contained.
The project may simply involve funder and funded partner but this is rare. More likely is that you will be one of a consortium of partners, possibly including other funders, NGOs, state institutions and tiers of government.
Ensure from the outset that your interests are fully cared for in the unfolding project through multilateral agreements, a properly constituted joint project planning/management forum, and by deploying personnel with the requisite time, authority, mandate and skills to represent you through the process.
Capital projects are expensive. Be clear as to who is paying for what and when, and act always to keep things within budget in this type of work that is so apt to run out of spending control. Be firm on this.
Be active in project conceptualisation and know that in the creative tension between funder and funded, your responsibilities include watching for the project to be realistic in its scope (what is needed vs. what would be nice to have), that its concept is focused on what benefits it will practically bring to the development work being supported, that it has necessary stakeholder buy-in and sense of ownership, and that all its aspects are appropriate.
Learn from elsewhere wherever possible. Many state departments such as the Department of Public Works may well have tried-and-tested guidelines that can helpfully be followed (how many toilets are needed per x number of users, etc.).
When working alongside the state, try keep in lock-step with this partner whose post-project assistance may be required for ongoing project viability.
Post-project viability essentially comes down to operating costs. Are these properly considered? Who will be responsible for ongoing maintenance, working supplies and local fees?
Be sure that these critical things are taken care of so that you’re not forced back into the project long after its building completion with a never-ending dependence on your funding support.
For similar reasons, resist the temptation of naming a building after yourself lest this also keep you more or less permanently on-site, as it were.
Do not proceed without the involvement and advice of experts in this field (engineers etc.). They are especially important in ensuring that the proposed project is kept to what is needed and to see if it can be done in ways less expensive than initially proposed.
They matter in understanding the technicalities and gremlins that inevitably come up during a complicated building process, and they are best placed to protect funder interests while ensuring that what you want to see achieved actually happens.
Keeping such independent experts on board throughout the capital project process is an expense that should ultimately save you money and heartache.
Just because a building idea seems good and worthwhile doesn’t always mean that it will be successfully employed once the building project is completed.
Critical to success is ensuring that all relevant stakeholders are involved in the conceptualisation and follow-through phases of the project, and that they have a real sense of project ownership.
If this sort of inclusivity isn’t part-and-parcel of the project from the very start, then a beautifully constructed White Elephant may be all you are left with in the end - apart from red faces.