Too Poor To Give? Challenging The South African Charity Mentality

Donor fatigue, the slashing of government budgets and growing levels of unemployment are just a few of the factors affecting South Africa’s charity and philanthropy scene. With the needs of vulnerable communities growing ever more apparent in the context of this instability, how is the nature and concept of ‘philanthropy’ evolving in South Africa charity?

For many, the word ‘philanthropy’ conjures an image of the prosperous and pinstriped syphoning off portions of their abundance to the less fortunate, their acts of benevolence captivating the media. “This very necessary giving is philanthropy at an institutional level [where] the use of funds is often managed in a top-down manner,” describes South African philanthropist Susan Wilkinson Maposa.

In South African the concept of philanthropy is conflated with charity, where philanthropy is interpreted as a flow of resources from the ‘haves’ to the ‘have-nots’ in the form of donations seeking to provide immediate relief. Lately, though, there have been challenges to this model of philanthropy and charity in South Africa.

“Philanthropy is multidirectional,” argues Maposa. She explains that while institutional philanthropy has its place as a vertical form of giving from the empowered to the vulnerable, there exists a vital second component of philanthropy, which is horizontal in nature. Horizontal philanthropy can be seen when resources, volunteer time and skills training flow directly between community members.

Not only does the horizontal flow of philanthropy need fostering, but the South African formula for philanthropy must distinguish itself from charity if it wishes to generate long-term results, argues Shelagh Gastrow, director of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, in a recent article. “There are people who believe that the harm caused by charitable giving exceeds the good especially as it can create a cycle of dependency,” she explains. “Yet, for the ‘giver’ it is easier to provide an immediate donation or food for a soup kitchen.”

In order to shift from the charity paradigm, Debashish Mitter, India’s Country Director for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, believes that it is vital to diversify tactics and focus on goal-based strategies.

“The earlier approach of simply donating funds is giving way to philanthropists committing resources such as time, talent and strategic counselling to the beneficiaries,” says Mitter.

Recently, Mitter’s organisation partnered with United Minds, a research group, to conduct research into the changing nature of philanthropy in several countries, including South Africa. Their findings indicate a definite shift from the South African charity paradigm. For example, respondents saw “money, skills, expertise, time and talent” as the new currencies of development, rather than just monetary donations. Moreover, the research found that over 70% of respondents believed philanthropies should keep on working at goals in the long-term, even if unforeseen challenges arise.

Tsitsi Masiyiwa, chairperson of Africa Philanthropy Forum (APF), agrees that limited resources or unexpected challenges should not deter philanthropies from reaching their goals. “Despite the limitations or the challenges we face, let’s take whatever we have, [and] put that together as people who are concerned and who are taking responsibility […] and do it in a strategic way.”


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