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Why unity of purpose is essential between non-profits and philanthropists

What are the reasons for philanthropists and non-profits to do what they do? Funders and non-profits work in different ways and in a variety of settings. Their strategies and measurements of success may be different. However, the reason they exist and are committed to what they do is, fundamentally, to change the world as they see it for the better. By Sarah Rennie, IPASA


In South Africa, we witness unjust inequality all around us, from birth to grave. We witness heartbreaking poverty and the suffering it causes. Philanthropists, with both modest and large means, are motivated to act to reduce poverty and inequality, whether they focus their resources in areas such as education, health, social justice or job creation.

Likewise, non-profits craft their strategies to improve people’s lives, to alleviate poverty, to give a chance to someone to be better educated, get a job: the list is endless.

From this perspective, the reasons for the actions of both philanthropists and non-profits are aligned. Indeed, one could say there is a unity of purpose: to do something about the poverty and inequality that we see around us every day and that we know is very, very wrong.

However, the relationship between nonprofits and philanthropists is not always easy and in fact, at times, appears to be convincingly fraught with tension and misunderstanding. The complaints run both ways. For example, funders bemoan that reports are delivered late if at all, spending is reallocated without consultation, there is a lack of good planning, budgets are unrealistic and outcomes are hopeful rather than evidence-based.

On the other hand, nonprofits may counter that philanthropists wield their power overbearingly, reporting requirements are onerous, they obsess unhealthily over “impact” and funding is late, delayed or dropped without warning. Scratch the surface, and in many instances, the relationship between philanthropists and non-profits seems positively sour. And, sadly, too often reduced to a monetary exchange.

Thankfully, this is not a one-dimensional experience and there are countless testimonies of the positive power of a good relationship between philanthropists and non-profits, where trust is created and value is added. Many relationships are decades old. In many cases, philanthropists are able to bet on an idea of a small, emerging non-profit and walk the journey with the non-profit, taking chances no-one else would.

In other instances, the “on the ground” insights, expert knowledge and experience of non-profits have resulted in strategic change for the philanthropists, allowing them to understand complex social problems in a more nuanced and informed way.

There are steps that can be taken to surface and strengthen the unity of purpose that already exists between non-profits and philanthropists:

- Make concerted efforts to walk in each other’s shoes. This requires getting to know the world of the “other”: what are the constraints and opportunities in the philanthropist and non-profit worlds respectively? How can we help to remove each other’s constraints and maximize each other’s opportunities?

- Gain deeper insight – where possible, philanthropists should sit on a Board of a non-profit or volunteer in some other capacity and non-profits should take time to learn more about the motivations, strategies and operations of philanthropists.

- Understand that this is a symbiotic relationship: non-profits do need the funding and other resources of philanthropists to carry out their work. Philanthropists need non-profits to do the work required to fulfill their mandate. However, the opportunities are not just about funding: there are many other benefits and ways to add support such as a skills transfer and training, mentoring, monitoring and evaluation support, etc.

- Use support organisations like Inyathelo and the Africa Centre on Philanthropy and Social Investment at Wits to ensure that the training and support provided contributes towards a more effective and trusting environment for philanthropists and nonprofits to achieve common goals.

- Leverage associations like IPASA, the National Association of Social Change Entities in Education (NASCEE) and the South African Monitoring and Evaluation Association (SAMEA) to improve the flow of information and opportunities across the development sector. For example, IPASA and NASCEE have both published “Best Practice Funding Guidelines in response to the COVID-19 crisis” which provide mutually re-enforcing guidelines on how funders can best support nonprofits during the pandemic.

Arguably, it has never been more important to have non-profits and philanthropists working with purpose and determination towards the common goal of people living better lives, dignified lives, and purposeful lives. There is no time to waste and no resources to squander. The work to create and cement unity of purpose between non-profits and philanthropists is urgent.


This article was first published in Inyathelo's 2020 Annual Report

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