A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But for India, and indeed for the world, 2020 is likely to be a year in which we have gone in reverse gear in the not-so-smooth journey of meeting the objectives set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented health, economic and social crisis across the world. Countries like India, with a large number of the people engaged in the informal economy, have been hit the hardest.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020 says that forecasts indicate the pandemic will push 71 million people back into extreme poverty in 2020, in what would be the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Undoubtedly, the impact on India will also be sizable.

CSR related spend that corporates can undertake is a minuscule proportion of government funding on social sectors. However, given the current socio-economic backdrop, it is even more imperative for companies to ensure that their CSR spend counts. The immediate response of corporates to the pandemic has included donating funds, personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and other healthcare equipment for pandemic-related efforts, supporting employees through remote ways of working and also refocusing corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts to address the immediate challenges faced by programme beneficiaries. But longer-term, how can corporates achieve more bang for their buck, so to speak.

Identify areas of focus

There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 action points linked to them. In addition, the government has identified key priority areas. Decide on which ones you want to get behind – ideally ones that resonate with your purpose as an organisation, and with your employees. 

Partner with the right organisations

Ensure that you are partnering with the right organisations to implement projects. Detailed due diligence of partner organisations before engagement, including looking at the composition of boards, potential financial mismanagement in the past, conflict of interest etc. is critical to ensuring that the money put in is used well.  

Be clear about the objectives

Have clarity on the expected impact of programmes and put in place well-defined milestones to help measure whether programmes are on track.

Maintain a dialogue

Engage with partner organisations on an ongoing basis to ensure that the pre-defined milestones are being met. If they are not, it is an opportunity to reassess, troubleshoot, share knowledge and best practices.

Monitor expenses

Keep track of spending. Get expenses audited independently to make sure that the funds are being utilised in the manner expected.

Be flexible

We don’t live in a perfect world, so often roadblocks arise, and a programme may need to be rethought, or need additional support, or be scrapped. Take a considered view on which approach will work best. 

Take a long-term view

Results sometimes take years to show. Do not be short term in your approach.  

Take a sustainable route

Where possible, opt for the sustainable option. Solar panels rather than diesel gensets, water recycling plants, kitchen waste composting – incorporate sustainability into the programmes.

An example will help illustrate the benefits of this approach. Education is one of the focus areas for Fidelity International in India and we partner with several organisations that work on providing education to children. But education cannot be seen in the context of classroom teaching alone.

As children need to be receptive to the lessons, the state of mind and health of the students are equally important factors that determine their ability to absorb the lessons imparted. So, the education projects include the provision of food and healthcare in addition to books, uniforms, teachers’ salaries, teaching aids, as well as the provision of infrastructure for the schools. Children need to be supported through the school journey, as do the teachers.

The larger implications of COVID-19 are yet to be determined; the pandemic will remain to unsettle our lives for months to come. The Indian corporate sector can move the needle during this hour of emergency by executing initiatives that benefit society at large, as well as by providing assistance to their employees and customers.

Unearthing solutions to today’s greatest social problems — from health to climate change — will rely on the innovation of corporates. The successful organisations of the future will be those that redefine their purpose and deploy resources and people in the quest for solutions to these immense social and environmental challenges.

Please note the article was originally published in the IndiaCSR in September2020.

The opinions expressed are author's own. Fidelity International is not responsible for the author's opinions.