How to achieve positive change and long-term sustainability through community building

By Innocentia Mahlangu | September 8, 2020

In order to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic head-on, many companies have pivoted, adapted, or supplemented their product and service offerings to aid in generating a wide variety of much-needed support and solutions.

While many have done so out of necessity, others have done so in recognition of their social responsibility towards the local and global communities they operate in. Some recognize the benefit extends to both their community's and their organization’s long-term profitability and sustainability.

There are many important lessons we can take from the past few months. But perhaps one of the most salient is just how interconnected we are as a global society and a global economy. We need to learn how we can better work together as nations, as communities, as companies, and as individuals towards achieving our shared goals.


Community building isn’t a buzzword, it’s fundamental to your bottom line

As companies increasingly witness the business benefits—and ofttimes necessity—of supporting their communities, the previously sidelined role of corporate social responsibility initiatives is beginning to take on greater significance in the boardroom.

But there’s much work to be done to get from acknowledgement of need to implementation of strategy. How can your organization find ways to make positive change happen while also achieving long-term business profitability and sustainability?


Five lessons learned from grassroots successes in the fight against COVID-19 in South Africa

The pandemic has exposed the global risk of our over-reliance on single markets for procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) for front-line healthcare workers. Writing for Engineering News, Schalk Burger explains how South Africa, like much of the world, had limited internal manufacturing and supply capacity and capability to deliver the vast quantities of PPE needed in the country.

In an effort to address this problem in South Africa—a historic net importer of PPE—the coalition Business for South Africa (B4SA) set up a PPE procurement platform. The goal is to facilitate the development of local manufacturing capacity for medical PPE to meet the demand self-sufficiently, with added economic benefits of resuscitating an ailing local manufacturing sector, creating much needed employment opportunities. Companies from a broad range of industry sectors have joined hands with government and labor to solve the problem collaboratively, embracing new and more open ways of working to generate novel solutions and benefit local communities. To date, twenty-six local companies have been supported and accredited as medical PPE manufacturers.

Another grassroots initiative, the Umoya Ventilator Project, has similarly brought together experts from diverse backgrounds. This is an initiative by a group of doctors, engineers, designers, and 3D printing specialists, to provide simple, low-cost respiratory support solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The design is a low-tech, low-cost solution that can have an immediate life-saving effect in patients who don't yet require invasive ventilation, resulting in an increased survival rate. Umoya is established as a social enterprise with the long-term objective of disrupting and overcoming some of the cost barriers to medical care in developing countries. Hatch is providing project management support to the Umoya team during the rapid development and production of devices, acting as partners through the social enterprise establishment process, and also offering some specialist advice on specific technical points.

“Working with Hatch has provided us with some thinking and reflection space and helped keep us on the track as we navigate a path new to most of us” – Umoya team

Our own teams of experts have gained valuable insights in working with both these important initiatives to provide project management support and data analysis. Here are some of the lessons learned from these community-driven projects in South Africa:


  1. Think outside the traditional business offerings box
    Just because your organization has experience delivering solutions for one particular type of client doesn’t mean it isn’t equipped to deliver those solutions for another type of client, or to deliver different solutions entirely. When you view your team’s capabilities from a skill perspective rather than an industry perspective, you begin to open the door to divergent opportunities to participate and contribute to the needs of your surrounding communities.

  2. Embrace collaboration within and beyond your organization
    Seeking opportunities for collaboration and learning how to work well collaboratively in cross-team and cross-industry environments builds an important level of adaptability for your organization. In addition to preparing your organization well for contributing productively to community building efforts, it can also begin to unearth unprecedented opportunities for growth through a more open approach to relationship building. For example, the B4SA project is comprised of a group of South African business leaders who have come together on a voluntary basis to collaborate with government and the labor sector, in dealing with the increasing requirement for COVID-19-related medical PPE and equipment in South Africa.

  3. Form a people-first approach to skill building and innovation
    Your people are the ones on the front-line of your business when it comes to the impacts of an event like COVID-19. They’ve had to adjust their working routines to new locations, often with new software and new ways of interacting with colleagues and clients. This brings with it many challenges but also many opportunities to take advantage of new perspectives and support new skill-building activities. Really take the time to listen to the individual ideas of people in your organization for how the company could be doing things better or new ways to contribute to emerging community-building efforts. Let your people guide you.

  4. Take advantage of digital technology for remote working opportunities
    Digital technology has made the transition to remote working possible for many organizations, and it’s also facilitating the collaborative efforts between companies toward important community-supporting initiatives. Embracing the potential of new and more advanced digital technologies will enable better opportunities for your organization to both handle the uncertainties of the pandemic and bring forward a full set of capabilities to collaborate in new ways without the need for face-to-face interaction. Both the Umoya and B4SA projects were executed remotely, with no physical face-to-face interaction by individuals from diverse backgrounds, some of whom had not met prior to the project.

  5. Make community building a core part of your organization’s long-term business planning
    Community building should be reframed as a long-term business planning strategy, not just an isolated or one-off effort in times of greater need. When we support and contribute to the growth of the communities we operate in, we facilitate positive feedback loops that benefit our own organizations in the long run. Perhaps it’s building a relationship with a new type of organization that may become a client one day. Or supporting education efforts in underserved neighborhoods that will eventually turn out highly skilled individuals for a stronger talent pool. Or maybe it’s equipping your people with new digital skills on a community-driven project today that will help prepare your organization for new ways of working in the future. Community building, in essence, is a long-term strategy for your own organization’s growth.


It’s time to listen, learn, and connect with others

The first step towards finding ways to make positive change happen in our communities is to be open to new ideas, to listen, and to learn. What are the challenges? What is needed? What skills and capabilities can we offer? What have others done? How have they pivoted to meet a community need? What tools and support did they need to get there? Which causes or initiatives are aligned with our own company values?

The next step is to reach out and start having conversations with people beyond your organization and even beyond your industry. Let people know you’re interested in collaborating to solve a specific problem. Find out whether your organization would do better to join an existing effort or has something unique and different it can invite others to build on together. After all, it's that plurality of thought that solves our world's toughest challenges.

At no other point in living memory have we seen so clearly how the ways in which we’re interconnected as a global society can be so devastating. But we’ve also been given a clue as to how much of an impact we might have if we proactively embraced opportunities to work together for positive change.