In our view

Is Philanthropy just another word for Charity? - The African Business Journal, 18 June 2013

I don’t think it’s just me.  The phrase “a charity case” raises the notion of an impoverished person or community desperately needing help or support because they have neither the resources nor the capacity to provide for themselves.  Charity is about helping people in need, about being benevolent towards others, about being “kindly”.

Thankfully, as humans, we are deeply capable of such benevolence towards others – humanity would be in a far sorrier state were we not supportive of, and engaged with, those around us.  This is after all the essence of community.  But not all giving falls into the Charity Case.  The world of giving is broad and complex and there are as many people with a passion for a cause as there are causes to support.

There are thousands of non-profits in South Africa that are not about “charitable causes” or social welfare ie. providing food for children and blankets to the homeless; ensuring transport for the aged; or donating wheelchairs to those unable to walk. While welfare organisations are critical to maintain services that meet basic human needs, there are thousands of other organisations that help form the backbone of our civil society. These organisations play a huge range of different roles that contribute to our social development.

Click here to read the article on The African Business Journal website

Here we are talking about the organisations and institutes that, for example, defend press freedom, that work toward access to justice for all, that enable performance and exhibition space for artists, that conduct health-related research, and that promote gender equality and initiatives to protect  children. This kind of work, and the funding that supports it, is what I would call philanthropy.  It is strategic, it has longer-term goals, and it is focused on change. Strategic philanthropy is focused on progressive social investment, on tackling issues at their roots – and rather than providing a fish for a day, it is about developing approaches to and methods for sustainable fishing so that communities can grow and develop with a long-term view into the future.

Philanthropy has been known, and shown, to take risks where government and business are either not able or not willing to.  Philanthropy is positioned to respond to crisis. Along with this, though, philanthropy has also been behind massive social movements (the environmental and women’s movements, for example) and has supported medical and technological innovation.  In many ways, philanthropic giving is a key source of financial support for the incubation of ideas and of possibilities in most fields including innovations in welfare service provision, education, energy, research, skills development, as well as visual and performing arts, amongst other areas. 

We must move from the charitable paradigm that sees non-profits as “holding out the begging bowl” in their efforts to attract resources, and frames those who give philanthropically as “kindly”.  This view is far too limiting for the reality of social development and of the philanthropy that supports causes and organisations.

Non-profits play a critical role in South Africa, from providing services to communities that are not served or under-served by government, to working on solutions to challenging problems not tackled or unresolved by either business or government.  It is these organisations and our civil society space which hold the key to consolidating our democracy and to ensuring that South Africa’s constitutional values and principles are not only defended but also advanced.

Equally critical for consolidating our democracy is the philanthropy that supports this work.

Philanthropy lies at the heart of each of us seeing ourselves as part of a bigger whole, as engaged citizens, where the good health of our communities is shaped by and dependent on the levels of individual involvement and will to contribute towards social development.  While there are many ways of being involved in our own community development, philanthropic giving is critical. Key players in the South African philanthropy field include individual donors, foundations, community foundations, socially responsible businesses, re-granting NGOs, international donors and others. While this terrain is complex, it is clear that a culture of giving amongst individuals in South Africa needs to be harnessed for long-term development. 

What individuals can do is take up the flag of philanthropy and commit themselves to being active citizens by contributing their own financial resources and energy into developing mechanisms for effecting the change they believe should be implemented.  We can look to government, we can complain about social injustice, and we can attempt a hands-off approach to addressing social challenges, expecting always that someone else will fix the problem. Ultimately, though, we do have to ask ourselves what transformative actions should be taken.  Then it becomes a simple case of deciding whether we will sit on the couch and complain in a “wouldn’t it be nice if….” paradigm, or to quote Mahatma Gandhi, whether we are going to “be the change we want to see.” 

If we decide we are going to be that change (and there really isn’t a choice, is there?), then we need to address the root causes of impoverishment and progress towards the point where, by working on systemic change, we can eradicate poverty.


Gabrielle Ritchie is a guest contributor to The Charity Case, ConceptLink’s monthly series on the social impact sector in Africa. Gabrielle is the Programme Director for Inyathelo, a South-Africa-based organization that works towards the development of effective grantseeking and grantmaking practices, and through capacity development in the higher education and non-profit sectors in South Africa, and on the African continent.