Philanthropy to Serve as the Engine Room of Social Change

philanthropy social change donors constitution CSOs
Wednesday, 17 November, 2010 - 10:13

Giving plays a critical role in bringing social change to communities. Through giving, philanthropists support CSOs and other stakeholders involved in community work aimed at changing the lives of the citizens for the better

Shelagh Gastrow, executive director of Inyathelo - The South African Institute for Advancement argues that the capacity of philanthropy to serve as the engine room of social change is critical, with philanthropists not answerable to the market or to voters, but having the capacity to take risk with new concepts, cutting edge ideas and social change. The women’s movement and the environmental movement are classic reminders of what philanthropy can achieve. Inyathelo was established to ensure that South Africa has a sustainable and vibrant civil society supported by a strong philanthropic movement.

2010 has been a momentous year in the development of such a philanthropic movement at a global level. In June two American billionaires, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, launched The Giving Pledge, a philanthropic campaign that invites the wealthiest individuals in the Unites States to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.

As this growing class of philanthro-capitalists use their wealth for various causes, the challenges of mutual accountability, legitimacy and effectiveness become increasingly more important.

We have to ask ourselves, while this pledge campaign gains momentum, even reaching South Africa, will the nature of philanthropy change? Will this movement be led by corporate concerns that focus on financial efficiency rather than risk and altruism; will the individual foundations concerned by-pass local civil society to run their own operations without partnerships on the ground, without consultation and engagement? Will this remain essentially philanthropic in nature or will it become a power game to create a world that mirrors the values of the market rather than focusing on the strengthening of civil society that provides the social fabric and the social cohesion that we require for stability and democracy?

In South Africa, as in the rest of the globe, when talking about ‘philanthropy’, there is inclined to be a focus on the wealthy and on celebrities. There is obviously debate about the affluent being obliged to give back to the society that made them wealthy.

This is well and good, but philanthropy is not only the realm of the rich. There are thousands of people across all economic classes who have given - to causes, issues and institutions that mean something to them, contributing to the public good.
The vital question in South Africa is how can we grow philanthropy at all levels, to support our civil society?

We tend to take for granted the thousands of organisations that provide services and contribute to, protect and defend our democracy. On their own or in partnership, they educate, they create jobs, they build, they research, they publish, they contribute towards policy, they advocate for change, they contest, and they help to ensure that we keep moving forward.

They are also key to ensuring that we live up to the aspirations of our Constitution – which is our social contract to forge a society based on equality, human dignity and the advancement of human freedom.

For many years, civil society has been overly dependent on foreign funding, but international funding is steadily being reduced, as South Africa is now seen as a middle income country, with the requisite structures and funds to support itself. South Africans therefore collectively need to ensure that this powerful, vibrant, diverse and necessary sector continues to thrive.

Without that support, our democracy cannot be fully realised.

Currently there is criticism that the emergence of new millionaires in South Africa has not seen a concomitant growth in philanthropy. As it is considered ‘good form’ not to shout too loudly about your good work in this country, philanthropic work generally operates under the radar.

Old money is very coy about its philanthropic role, which perhaps does not provide enough encouragement for new money to become involved. Where is the learning opportunity for the potential emerging philanthropists? The Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards seek to create this learning opportunity – the Awards applaud role models who contribute to strategic social development and to the growth of the philanthropic movement in South Africa, in the hopes that this philanthropy will be emulated by other South Africans.

In interviewing the nominees who were shortlisted for the Awards, we were reminded of the range of perspectives on philanthropy, a few of which I would like to leave with you tonight:

First, philanthropic acts are one of the strongest ways to support social development and social justice, and to meet public needs. At the same time, giving provides a powerful mechanism for individuals to express their personal values and commitments.

Second, what came out in the nominee interviews were the relationships which philanthropists have with those they support. Even with the distortion that transfers of money can involve, philanthropists are exposed to new perspectives, and new ways of seeing the world - and their giving brings them into contact with people that they most likely otherwise would never have met.

So, while philanthropy clearly supports the important work done by others, there is an element to it that transforms the people who give. One of the most revealing themes that came out in every interview, bar none, was the personal satisfaction, the potent sense of meaning and the true happiness that arises from supporting social initiatives bigger than ourselves. The clear message is that philanthropy is FUN!

Hopefully, South Africans from all walks of life will begin to explore their philanthropic roles, start seriously thinking of what they have versus what they need - and enjoy giving away the balance for the social good.

- Shelagh Gastrow is executive director at Inyathelo - The South African Institute for Advancement.

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