Press "Enter" to skip to content

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.


  • Shelagh Gastrow is the executive director of the South African Institute of Advancement, known as Inyathelo. Better known as the author of five editions of Who's Who in South African Politics, Shelagh has spent the past five years building up the South African Institute for Advancement as the "home of South African philanthropy" and as a major resource for non-profit organisations and anchor institutions such as universities in their quest for long-term financial sustainability. Shelagh's understanding of all aspects of institutional and organisational advancement enables Inyathelo to provide support and mentoring services to many organisations to ensure the development of professional and sustainable approaches and strategies for mobilising resources to advance their objectives. She is currently involved in developing a long-term strategy to promote philanthropy in South Africa in line with Inyathelo's mission to build an enduring culture of "giving" that results in a strong and stable society and democracy in South Africa.


  1. Belle Belle 8 February 2008

    Good article, on a topic that rarely is addressed in SA media.

    Congratulations to Edgar Droste on his Inyalethu award: a humble south african who will never hear the loud, public worship of the sort we saffies gave to Oprah, although his decades of contributing to education in this country way exceed her R300k. Sadly, Edgar lacks the bling that we so love before all else.

    My thoughts on Philanthropy in SA: where the craving for material status exists the desire to help others WILL remain absent. The two are mutually exclusive: if you crave bling, by default, you despise those who are ‘have nots’.

    Philanthropy, in local terms, is Ubuntu. Once the average Saffie has escaped poverty and joined the upwardly mobile middle classes Ubuntu becomes expendable in favour of self-expenditure.

    Saffies are notoriously materialistic, a national characteristic that has ‘blossomed’ with our new democracy; which is why we are far less inclined to helping those in need than we were under apartheid.

  2. Taxman Taxman 8 February 2008

    A load of humbug.

    You make self-sacrifices. You offer your time and effort to help bring changes and improvements to the less-fortunate.

    And then you are called “paternalistic” and you are expected to willingly endure the sneers of contempt for your life’s work from the ingrates you’ve tried to uplift?

    Better not to even bother. Let these eternal moaning minnies find their own salvation.

  3. Tman Tman 11 February 2008

    The biggest challenge of any philanthropy is sustainability.
    So, the question is, how can philanthropy lure young generation back to rural areas to assist in these programmes? The second issue is talent. For any programme to succeed a certain level of skills is required. The social settings nowadays do not produce youth that inherit craft techniques from their parents. The youth is more interested in technology. So, who is going to conduct more research on the technique of making for example, calabashes if our youth are not interested in that field?

    There is need to develop methodologies that can be applied to assist philanthropy to succeed. Some studies have indicated that India is one of the few countries that we can learn from about community participation in these social projects.

    On the CSI programme, the people who manage these initiatives need to go out to the community and stay there for a week in order to understand the behaviour of the society they sponsor. This will help CSI programmes to develop mutual strategies to meet the expectations of the community and that of a company that sponsors the programme.

  4. Nomatola Nomatola 11 February 2008

    Good article. The biggest problem with philanthropy in SA is that there are no benefits. Like in US people get tax returns for giving generously. We need to cultivate the culture of giving as well as voluntering without expecting to be paid.

  5. Berend Schuitema Berend Schuitema 11 February 2008


    Your enthusiasm and genuine quest for a philanthropic movement to thrive as the cutting edge of a nation-in-the-making is compelling, crystal clear and inspiring. While I have an almost spontaneous aversion to the very word “philanthropy” (probably comes from my Afrikaans upbringing) the neat and precise manner in which you unpack your vision makes me, and hopefully many others reading your article, stand still and think. And not veer off with blunted disappointed life experiences with negative and responses. But then the latter, like beggars, we will always have with us.

    Your article is water tight and though long, it requires no further fleshing out. You say everything coherently and straight forward. Above all your enthusiasm spills over the brim.
    One feels converted rather than wanting to give the response of “you have convinced me”. One either goes with the vision, as I hope many are, or one sniffs a bit and gives a rather rude and jaundiced response as one of the writers above (Taxman).

    Having said this you would not think that it is spoken by some one with an inbred aversion to the word “philanthropists”. But my own long walk in life has taught me one fundamental thing. No master what others do to you, especially in response to good motives, never let that hurt you. Never feel offended by remarks meant to put out that little flame from the soul. I have also learnt never to pigeon hole people, not least myself or you. Doing that in fact is the platform for racial thinking and prejudice.

    What you are doing and propagating is armed by its implicit truth and logic. Doing good works is good and well. One has to put a recognize the ubiquitous idolatry of greed and not become a victim thereof. One has to live what one preaches, one has to become the sort of person that Mother Theresa was. While there is only one Mother Theresa exemplifying her is fact means there are many. One has to give unconditionally to those who ask unconditionally.

    I like what you are on about and sincerely hope that your bread baskets arte filled by hundreds, nay thousands of South African from all walks and colours of life. There are special things that can only be done by special people working people-to-people and you are one of them.

    Carry on the good work you are doing!

  6. Jessica Byrnes Jessica Byrnes 22 January 2009

    Shelagh – if you ever see this, what, in your opinion, is the currently MOST needed social betterment activity in SA. Not in terms of only donating funds to one’s project, but in terms of activity?
    Kind regards,

    Jessica Byrnes

Leave a Reply