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Thoughts on philanthropy in South Africa

My area of interest is that big word “philanthropy”. We in South Africa take the thousands of organisations that contribute to our democracy for granted. They provide relief and welfare, they educate, they create jobs, they build, they research, they publish, they contribute towards policy, they advocate, they contest and they help ensure that we progress.

What do we do to ensure that this powerful and necessary sector continues to thrive? Without it, our democracy cannot endure.

In South Africa, the term “philanthropy” has a history and does not necessarily find favour with the majority of people. This history goes back to the missionaries of the 19th century who were philanthropic on their terms — they looked after “the poor natives”, saved their souls and pushed the borders of the empire. The paternalistic attitudes of the day still resonate in South Africa. However, missionary philanthropy developed further towards providing health and educational facilities for local populations. Some of the best historic schools in South Africa emerged from this missionary philanthropic movement. The education provided to black pupils by these schools until the advent of apartheid was some of the best available.

Currently the concept of philanthropy in South Africa is unclear. Normal indigenous community assistance, mutual help, networks and systems of patronage are rolled into one with charity, corporate social investment, international aid and individual giving. These are very different in behaviour, values and methodology. While they can all be seen to be a form of “giving”, they are not all necessarily philanthropic as the latter should involve a level of altruism.

What is altruism? If you check a thesaurus, it brings up words such as self-sacrifice, humanity, selflessness, unselfishness and philanthropy. For some, this kind of behaviour is counter-intuitive as it involves assisting people who are not your own family or community; trusting people that you do not know well and giving your own resources to others who may or may not use them effectively. Hence philanthropy involves some risk. There is obviously debate about the affluent being obliged to give back to the society that made them wealthy, but philanthropy is not only the realm of the rich. The recent Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards show that ordinary people can be philanthropic — they can take the little they have to grow new initiatives that benefit society.

The charitable paradigm in which most of us operate and think about philanthropy provides an unequal relationship between those who have and those who don’t. The charitable obligation to give creates an obligation to appear needy, and this manifests itself in the non-profit culture that encourages the under-payment of staff and the lack of investment in premises and facilities.

Unfortunately this becomes a vicious circle as serious donors looking for long-term partnerships are not attracted to organisations that are in permanent financial crises — their very appearance raises alarm bells for some social investors who want to ensure that their funds will be well managed in professionally run and sustainable organisations. The charitable impulse is, unfortunately, short term and immediate, leaving organisations in unending crises about their resources and unable to attract quality staff. This does not necessarily mean that there is no room for charity in society — immediate relief in a time of crisis is critical and appreciated, but this does not provide long-term solutions to social problems.

In South Africa, when we talk philanthropy, people immediately jump to corporate social investment. Our civil society organisations tend to focus on foundations, foreign aid and corporates as sources of support. We have left out that mass of people who are likely to provide financial support, but are never asked. Every single South African, rich or poor, has a cause. It is finding those with whom you have common ground that will enable organisations to build financial sustainability. Regular giving from individuals sustains a significant number of non-profits such as SOS Children’s Villages and the SPCA. They run effective mail-shot campaigns that result in significant funding for their infrastructural and operational costs, areas that are often difficult to fund from the traditional sources such as corporates or foundations. Why do our organisations shy away from asking their key individual stakeholders from making a contribution?

How, then, do we grow a philanthropic movement in South Africa that will support our civil society and our anchor institutions such as universities within a paradigm that explores strategic options, focuses on delivery and excellence and involves sustainable support through effective partnerships?

Essentially, the stimulus to giving is asking, and the ability or capacity to ask for support involves the development of strong relationships between organisations and potential supporters. Connections between the non-profit sector and individual South Africans who are passionate about the country and want to make a contribution is critical. In addition, we have to create role models. While it is considered “good form” not to shout too loudly about your good works, if philanthropic activity in South Africa is to continue to operate under the radar, then we do not have role models who others can emulate.

Currently there is criticism that the emergence of new millionaires in South Africa has not seen a concomitant growth in philanthropy. If old money is coy about its philanthropic role, why should new money become involved? Where is the learning opportunity? There are attempts to create role models who will contribute to the growth of a philanthropic movement in South Africa, and the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards, as an example, do just that.

What are the key benefits of creating a healthy philanthropic sector in South Africa? When we explore where philanthropic money can go, it opens up new vistas. Going back to the issue of risk — philanthropists can take risks. They are not answerable to the voter or the shareholder. They can invest in cutting-edge initiatives or they can support those new discoveries that push the boundaries of knowledge. New ideas generally develop on the fringe, such as the women’s movement and the environmental movement. These were not supported by governments or the corporate sector — to the contrary, it would not have been in their interest to do so. The funds came from people, rich and poor, who were passionate about the issues. This was philanthropic money. Organisations involved in environment and gender are not charities. This funding is strategic; it is about changing society for the good, and it is about social justice.

Universities are also recipients of philanthropic money (and they are not charities either). The government and the corporate sector are unlikely to fund issues that are not voter friendly. For example, initial research into the contraceptive pill could not attract government funding because it was politically controversial. Universities are often the anchor institutions that sow the seeds that change our world. In addition, philanthropy need not demand the immediate results that business expects, but can take its time to measure impact. For example, the green movement began in the 1960s, but we are really only seeing its effects now. It is the philanthropists who have doggedly continued to support this movement who have made this contribution.

The debate around philanthropy opens up myriad other issues. Philanthropy is not necessarily democratic, for example, but then it is people’s own money. Tax is democratic (if everyone pays it), but then it is not always distributed fairly or effectively. The South African government has not been keen to open the floodgates with tax benefits related to philanthropy as it would, understandably, rather collect money to fulfil its own mandate. However, the consequence is, as mentioned before, that there are areas that will never receive financial support as they would not be a government priority in terms of re-election.

Philanthropy has a clear place in our lives — a movement in South Africa to give back, to reinvest in those aspects of our lives that have meaning and for which we have a passion, while maintaining an altruistic view on what we do. Trevor Manuel, at his keynote speech at the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards, reminded the audience of the need to give generously without being patronising. Hopefully South Africans will begin to explore their philanthropic role and start seriously thinking of what they have versus what they need. The balance can definitely be used elsewhere for the social good.