Words of advice from Fellow Shelagh Gastrow to others working in philanthropy in countries in transition.
Interview by: Louise Hallman Transcript by: Katharina Schwarz
Since the times of great crisis running up to and the subsequent political upheaval that came with the end of apartheid in 1990 and the election of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, in 1994, Africa’s richest nation has yet to truly emerge from this period of transition, and continues to suffer from great social inequalities, poor levels of education and high unemployment, coupled with political inertia.
International philanthropy in the country boomed after the end of apartheid, and local philanthropy is growing also. Inyathelo: The South Africa Institute for Advancement is working to strengthen local philanthropy in the country. Inyathelo’s executive director Shelagh Gastrow, a Fellow of the session ‘Philanthropy in Times of Crisis and Transition: Catalyzing Forces of Change’, spoke with Salzburg Global Seminar Editor, Louise Hallman, to share her experience of the challenges in the philanthropic sector in South Africa, and what this experience can teach others in the sector from countries entering into periods of great transition.
SGS: It’s twenty years on since the end of apartheid, yet you said at the opening discussion of ‘Philanthropy in Times of Crisis and Transition’ that South Africa still hasn’t come out that transition phase yet, and the honeymoon is somewhat over. What does that mean for philanthropy in the country?
SG: I think in 1994 people were very idealistic and had huge expectations around change. We’d had this democracy and human rights and the government promised services. We had a thing called the “Reconstruction and Development Program” which was going to build houses, infrastructure, and I think we overestimated what was possible and we’re 18 years on. I wouldn’t say things are falling apart; we’re still functioning, but the dream has become reality and there hasn’t been that kind of delivery. Some things are worse than before. We think our schooling has done a terrible slide backwards. That our politics is in a time 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?
SG: The total of local philanthropy can’t do everything. It’s fairly targeted and people have been working in their own silos. Only very recently the group of philanthropy organizations we work with has started to approach government; we engage in joint efforts. Their funding might be big enough and there may be things government wants to do, where it needs the extra support, actually engaging with them on a modus operandi basis. Previously if you did want to engage with government, you had to know somebody somewhere in the system, and what we’re 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, where two of our groups, which are involved in conservation have developed a partnership with the department. It’s a multi-layer program, training young people in conservation, providing bursaries of students to do their degrees in conservation and also working with State on how that can be integrated.
SGS: So, beyond the challenges, you’re also finding the opportunities. You said you’re arranging this network of philanthropy organizations in South Africa. What else is Inyathelo doing to strengthen the philanthropy sector in South Africa?
SG: We’ve got different components to our program. The first thing we did was to initiate the Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards, because philanthropy was happening under the radar in South Africa. People were complaining that the new elites weren’t involved, and our argument was that there are no role models. Everyone was being very secretive about what they do and anonymous, and so our awards are not prizes or winners, they’re just role models and we try and choose individuals from across the spectrum, so we’ll have youth and philanthropy, community philanthropy, where really you can see how the poor can make a financial contribution to change in their communities, and there are of course the wealthy individuals. With the awards, we use them as a hook, to make people aware about philanthropy and I must say, when we started, just the word “philanthropy” was contested. People were saying it was such a patronizing term, and in South Africa it goes back to the 19th century missionaries who arrived, there to “save native souls”, so there was sort of an antagonism to the word. (The irony is that those missionaries produced some of the best schools the country’s ever seen.) We tried to find alternatives but in the end we decided: it’s a globally recognized word and we meant to give it currency—and in fact we’ve achieved that. The awards came with a kind of awareness-raising campaign in radio and print media, too.
The other thing we’ve done, subsequent to that, is we’ve organized a big philanthropy conference between local private philanthropy and big international philanthropy, which has been coming to South Africa. That was a really excellent three-day conference and out of that this network emerged, of local philanthropy, and so we act as a secretariat for that network, which is growing. We started with nine and now we’re up to over 40 members. They themselves have established in an informal way, affinity groups. There’s one on health, one on education, one on social justice, one on conservation and they are starting to find each other’s projects, jointly. They’ll find the NGO that one is passionate about and they’ll mention it to others and say “I’m starting off with a lead gift” and the others will fall in. 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, whereas the first few meetings: people were very suspicious. It took us a whole year to even obtain the annual spend of the group and even now we don’t know the size of the endowments. We’re not allowed to say who’s spend is whose, so if we talk about the group, we can say annual spend is in the region of 500million Rand but no one can know which is the little one or which is the big one. So, they’re still very careful about going too public. The other thing we’ve done is that we have a website which services philanthropy in the country –www.philanthropy.org.za – which we try to keep updated with information; we have information about the awards, any debates. We’ve also done smaller things. We have a partnership with a radio station, Fine Music Radio – that’s our target market, people who listen to classical music – and we paid, our of our marketing budget, for about six months, once a week on a Wednesday, at about 7.30 in the morning, after the news, for a 10 minute slot on someone speaking about philanthropy. We had all kinds of people speaking about philanthropy and that has led to phone-ins and people, wealth management companies, contacting foundations. It’s had an impact.
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 it’s been resurgent. Do you see this hopefully continuing?
SG: I hope so. You know, there is a funding crisis and a lot of quite big, well-established non-profits are closing or shrinking. I’m not sure how much is the lack of money, or how much is just changing circumstances—you’re job is done—but people don’t like to let go of a non-profit that’s really played a critical role. What is also real about civil society is: it’s not necessarily the money that creates the change, it’s the citizens. People that are passionate about a cause will work for nothing and we’re seeing a growth of social movements for example, where there isn’t a lot of money. There’s a lot of organizing, but not a lot of money. We have a lot of unemployed people and so they get involved; they’ve got the time and they have as much power as the well-resourced NGOs and so yes, there is a funding crisis in structured civil society and you’re having this movement developing underneath. I just think though that having structured organizations is critical. They offer advice and guidance. Very often they’ve got the networks and if they can work with social movements, you can really do a lot of stuff.
SGS: This week we’ve been discussing not only countries in transition, but also those in crisis and there’s people working here from the Middle East and North Africa region, which has recently come through the crisis and is working through the transition of the Arab Spring. What do you think, if anything, can they learn from this period of extended transition in South Africa?
SG: If I look at how philanthropy operates in South Africa, I think international philanthropy has played a very important role, particularly in the era of social justice and human rights. That is a space which is not yet fully engaged by local money. Local money is either living donors or foundations that have been set up on terms of bequest, and they tend to be short-sighted. They look at social welfare, or women’s rights, which is not short-sighted, but they are much more restricted. We have three or four local foundations that focus on social justice and they are now are campaigning among wealthy individuals to start looking at social justice, but what is great about it is that it’s not the non-profit side campaigning but the donors themselves, who are trying to get other donors into that field because they’re seeing that if we don’t actually make sure there are enough resources in the field now, we do know that international donors are fair-weather friends, I suppose. They come and go and you can’t rely on that funding forever. There’s a real big push to promote social justice philanthropy in the country at the moment.
SGS: And you think that’s something these other countries need to look at?
SG: I think that’s something they need to look at because I think people in the beginning tend to rely on international donors, and international donors are always there where there’s a crisis. They get distracted very quickly and off they go and they’ll see what they can do and it’s fantastic. The grants are huge, though you can do something very powerful with it. At some stage though they’re going to withdraw.
What happens in transition is power corrupts, no matter how you trust and you think those in power are wonderful and marvelous; they age, which is what we’re noticing. Many of our original heroes have passed anyway and it doesn’t mean the next generation is as enthusiastic about democracy and human rights. They tend to look more at wealth accumulation. You start seeing more corruption coming into the system. If you don’t have the resources to litigate, to contest and to educate, then you fall into that pattern. So, what we’re very, very lucky with in South Africa is that we had a very, very vibrant civil society—until 1994, when it went into a decline because civil society leaders joined the government, went into the civil service and everyone was very excited because they were going to make a big difference. The term that’s being used is de-mobilized, and I would say in the last five to six years we’ve seen the rise again of, I don’t want to say civil society, but a lot of advocacy groups, a lot of social justice groups and they’re having an impact. They’ve affected the legislation the government has tried to put through, which is not necessarily human rights friendly, and they’ve litigated, they’ve had demonstrations. They also do a lot of political education, but they’re largely funded by international money and that’s not going to last.
What I would say to those countries: build your philanthropy while the going’s good. Don’t wait until it’s too late.