Philanthropy as a Force for Change

democracy governance philanthropy ngos
Tuesday, 12 February, 2013 - 16:39

In this interview, Shelaugh Gastrow, head of Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement, shares her views on philanthropy and the potential contribution it could make in addressing inequalities in SA

What are the best options and strategies for philanthropy - especially private charitable institutions - to help build and sustain open and more equitable societies, especially during and emerging from times of crisis? Institutional philanthropy continues to grow rapidly around the globe and new players are evolving - sometimes revolutionising - new practices and structures to fit particular contexts and respond more effectively to local needs.

Late last year, the Salzburg Global Seminar convened a conference in the Austrian city to bring together leading thinkers and practitioners who are pioneering new models and mechanisms to strengthen international philanthropy and build local philanthropy in many different regions of the world.

Shelagh Gastrow, executive director of Inyathelo: The South Africa Institute for Advancement, was asked to speak at a session on ‘Philanthropy in Times of Crisis and Transition: Catalysing Forces of Change’.

SGS (Salzburg Global Seminar): It’s nearly twenty years since our first democratic elections and yet you said at the opening discussion in Salzburg that South Africa still hasn’t come out of the transition phase although the honeymoon is over. What does that mean for philanthropy in our country?

SHELAGH: Despite being Africa’s richest nation, we continue to suffer from great social inequalities, poor levels of education and high unemployment. This is all coupled with political inertia. I think in 1994 people were very idealistic and had huge expectations around change. We’d had this wonderful democracy, our human rights were enshrined in a new Constitution and the government was promising improved services to all. But I think we overestimated what was possible. We are now 18 years down that road and I certainly wouldn’t say things are falling apart; we’re still functioning, but there hasn’t been the kind of delivery we needed to really improve the quality of the lives of most of our citizens. In fact, in some ways, things are worse than before, particularly our schooling has done a terrible slide backwards. Our politics are also in a period of flux and our ruling party is having its own internal problems, which play out right across the bureaucracy, into every village in the country. It’s quite unstable in a way.

SGS: What sort of challenge does that pose for someone working in philanthropy?

SHELAGH: This poses many challenges for those working in philanthropy in South Africa. Until recently, most philanthropists were working in their own silos. Inyathelo has worked hard to bring philanthropists together and we have begun engaging with government. Previously, if you wanted to work with government, you had to know somebody somewhere in the system. What we are hoping is that there’ll be some kind of protocol, where, if philanthropy is involved, there’s a partnership. And in fact, a very good partnership has developed since our first discussions with the Department of Environmental Affairs. Two of our philanthropy groups working in conservation have developed a good working partnership with the department. It’s a multi-layer programme, training young people in conservation, providing bursaries of students to do their degrees in conservation and also working with government on how that can be integrated.

SGS: What else is Inyathelo doing to strengthen the philanthropy sector in South Africa?

SHELAGH: Inyathelo has worked hard over the past decade to grow philanthropic giving in many different ways as part of our vision to build a vibrant democracy in South Africa by strengthening our civil society organisations and higher education institutions. We initiated the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards seven years ago because philanthropy was happening under the radar in South Africa. People were complaining that the energising new elites weren’t involved, and our argument was that there were no role models. Everyone was being very secretive about what they did or gave. Our Awards are not about prizes or winners, they’re just a means of profiling role models. We try and choose individuals from across the spectrum, including wealthy individuals who use their money to make a difference as well as young people and those who have very little but give generously to their community and change lives. When we started the Awards, even the word ‘philanthropy’ was contested. People were saying it was such a patronising term, going back to the 19th century missionaries who arrived to ‘save native souls’. We tried to find alternatives but in the end we decided that it was globally recognised and we would need to give it currency.

The other thing we did was to organise a big philanthropy conference in 2010 between local private philanthropy and international organisations. It was an excellent three-day conference, out of which emerged a strong network of local philanthropists called the Private Philanthropy Circle. Inyathelo serves as the secretariat for that network, which is growing. We started with nine organisations and individuals, and we now have over 40 members. They themselves have established affinity groups on health, education, social justice and conservation, and they are starting to work together to support each other’s projects. We have one project that’s getting six different grants from within the group and it’s actually incredibly exciting because then things happen. The whole group is informed and when you hold the launch event, the whole group attends. There’s an enormous sense of camaraderie and trust. And although we are not allowed to disclose who spends what, the annual spend of the circle is in the region of R500 million.

The other thing we’ve done is set up a website which services philanthropy in the country – On the site, we have up-to-date information and articles about philanthropy; video’s and podcasts on inspiring South African philanthropists; as well as other resources. Last year, we formed a partnership with Fine Music Radio, a community station in Cape Town, and ran a campaign featuring South African philanthropists who were making a difference. The campaign had a significant impact and we know of a new foundation that is in the process of being established as a result of the programme.

SGS: What would you say about the future of philanthropy, or civil society even, in South Africa? You said in the last five or six years, there’s been resurgence?  

SHELAGH: If I look at how philanthropy operates in South Africa, I think international philanthropy has played a very important role, particularly in the area of social justice and human rights. It is not yet a space fully supported by local money. Local money is either living donors or foundations set up by bequests. These can be quite restrictive in terms of what they will and won’t support. We have three or four local foundations that focus on social justice and they are now campaigning among wealthy individuals to start supporting and championing social justice organisations. We can’t rely on international funders to support these more controversial organisations forever. International donors are always there when there’s a crisis but they get distracted very quickly and move on to other causes when the world shifts its attention away.

We are very lucky in South Africa that we have always had a very vibrant civil society. After 1994, much of civil society was demobilised in the sense that many activists and leaders joined the government and civil service. I would say that in the last five years though, we’ve seen an increase in advocacy groups, especially those focussing on social justice. This is often in response to the kind of contested and possibly unconstitutional legislation that government is trying to push through.

- This is an edited version of Louise Hallman's interview with Shelagh Gastrow, executive director at Inyathelo – The South African Institute for Advancement. To read the original interview, refer to the SGS website.

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