Corporates: Be sure your CSR activities are up to the mark

June is 'workplace giving' month and, with critical thinkers rising through the ranks, businesses need Corporate Social Responsibility programs with airtight business plans says this impactful player

Weh Yeoh, CEO and co-founder, Umbo
Weh Yeoh, CEO and co-founder, Umbo

Organisations looking to invest in corporate social responsibility (CSR) – and the positive corporate culture and image it encourages – should look for charities which plan their own closure, according to one of this year’s Pro Bono Australia’s Impact 25 winners.

The founder of fundraiser, Day without Speech, believes it simply makes good business sense for charities to have an expiry date. And it's a trend he sees being elevated as business goodwill is increasingly driven by younger workers with more critical, nuanced thinking.

Ideally, companies want to support a charity that can quantify and articulate when their job is done, Yeoh said. “A more nuanced donor, and someone who understands the potential pitfalls of charities, will be concerned about when their support is no longer needed – and rightly so. A lot of charity work, in my opinion, is about perpetuation of the charity and almost a perpetuation of the problem the charity seeks to address,” Yeoh told CMO.

"A successful charity is one which can say 'we think success is when we're not needed any more’. Those sorts of charities are few and far between.   

“Historically, people have been involved in fundraising programs because they’re seen a ‘good cause’. But when people say that, it gives charities a free pass to do almost anything because it decreases the need for critical thinking." 

Having an exit strategy

By contrast, Yeoh claimed the current perception of charities, particular across younger generations, is on effective charity work and understanding more about where the money goes and the methodologies used.
Yeoh has been asked questions about where the money goes himself by young primary school children he has met through Day without Speech fundraisers in Australia, Singapore and Cambodia. He has also run this fundraiser for corporates such as Salesforce, NSW Treasury’s young professionals network and accountancy firm, McGrathNichol.  

Originally a physiotherapist working with children with disabilities, Yeoh founded the Organisation to Improve Communication in Cambodia (OIC Cambodia) eight years ago. Back then, speech therapy was non-existent despite the fact that 500,000 Cambodians needed this basic health service. As part of an exit strategy for OIC Cambodia, Yeoh planned for local people to run it. After four years, he relinquished the leadership to locals. 

In 2017, Yeoh returned home to Australia and founded OIC Australia, which runs Day Without Speech here to raise funds for OIC Cambodia. He soon discovered many rural Australians also faced similar problems and were waiting 18 months for speech and occupational therapy services. With co-founders Francesca Pinzone and Ed Johnson, Yeoh set up Umbo, a social enterprise helping families in rural and remote Australia with online speech and occupational therapies that reduce wait times from 18 months down to one week.  

Participating organisations have told Yeoh they like Day without Speech because it benefits a charity to have an end point. Corporates participating in OIC Australia are invited to go quiet for a day – or a few hours – in support of the charity's ambition.

Funds raised by Day without Speech also help create a profession of speech therapy in Cambodia as opposed to helping individual children. Training is done through university courses and local government organisations succh as paediatric hospitals so they can treat children and decrease reliance on foreign help.

OIC Cambodia’s end-goal is to exit the country by 2030 when there are 100 Cambodian speech therapists integrated into the public sector. "So everything OIC Cambodia does is about creating sustainable local therapy in Cambodia beyond OIC’s time there,” Yeoh said. 

“Assuming everything goes to plan, by 2030 we won't be needing companies to support us, and that's something companies looking for the right CSR program are extremely interested in."

Alignment on all-round benefits 

When it comes to maximising the benefits of CSR programs, Yeoh advised any fundraising activity must reap benefits for everyone involved. This is possible when the program’s activities, experiences and goals are well aligned. 

“A good program should benefit not just the people the donations are going toward but all the stakeholders involved,” he said. 

For example, Day without Speech invites people to give up talking for an hour or as long as they can. Yeoh said children can last longer than an hour, with keen teenagers staying quiet a day or two, but most adults can't go beyond one hour. The day benefits participants because they get to experience the challenges and frustrations faced by the people who are ultimately being helped, he said. Finally it benefits children in Cambodia who benefit from trained speech therapists.  

Yet the benefits go beyond a simple understanding, funds raised and much-needed speech therapy. 

“When Day without Speech is run, it raises awareness of communications difficulties more broadly and creates a society that is kinder towards integrating people who have different needs – whether it's communication or different types of abilities, disabilities or other differences,” Yeoh said. 

"What's remarkable to me is to see children so open-minded about difference. When I went to school, we were less aware of differences – about diversity across the spectrum. Now [in the current school environment] it becomes the responsibility of everybody else in that classroom to include kids with a disability.” 

Accentuate the positive 

Another hallmark of a good CSR program for Yeoh is ensuring the fundraiser makes a point about society generally, rather than a point about particular people, underlining its positivism.

A primary goal for Day without Speech was to avoid being a fundraiser that was just about the negative aspects of having a disability -  a pitfall common among many fundraising activities, according to Yeoh. 

"We wanted people to experience the challenges of not being able to speak but also to understand some of the other things they can use to communicate and what, as a society, we can do to accommodate people who have difficulties communicating," he said.

“When you see something that aligns all those touchpoints – money going to a cause that aligns with the experience people are having, and also aligns with an activity that doesn’t just talk about deficits but also about positives and strengths that people experiencing that difficulty might have – then all of those experiences and elements align really well. Then you have a good, comprehensive CSR program.” 

Involve your team 

A third must is ensuring staff have a say at a minimum, if not are driving program themselves, said Yeoh. Suggesting charities which have clear and finite goals and can outline success, preferably to a timeframe, should encourage the team and especially younger members, to get on board. .  

“Statistically, we know younger people are more engaged in the social impact of work as opposed to the financial benefits – so companies have an opportunity to get it right,” said Yeoh.   

Yeoh also advised giving staff a choice from among some of the less well-known charities that don’t usually get support. His view is that these more appealing “underdogs” are likely to win hearts and wider staff participation because their efforts could have greater impact.

Yeoh's newest social enterprise, Umbo, is endeavouring to do just that by filling a gap in rural Australia for speech and occupational therapy.  Working mainly in eastern NSW, around Darwin and in Tasmania, Umbo has already helped more than 200 families in its three-and-a-half years.

Umbo's aim is to affect the system of what it sees as rural-urban inequality beyond the organisation itself.  Yeoh and his partners are still working on the formula for that – with time on their side.

“As a for-a-purpose business, success [for Umbo] is when we create structural change within a system,” he added.  

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