In our view

Philanthropy works: just one big idea makes a huge difference - 09 Oct 2013 - Cape Times

This opinion piece by Gillian Mitchell was published in the Cape Times (second edition) on 09 October 2013

WHAT is the right time to become a philanthropist? Is there an optimal age? Is it that moment when you think you have more money than you need? Does it depend on how much free time you have? Do you have to be religious? Do you need a social conscience? Should you have a plan?

On November 5, Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement will again honour South African philanthropists who through their insight, hard work and contributions make the lives of others better. It is seven years since the first Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards were held and judging by the quality and quantity of nominations this year, there is no shortage of people doing good by giving.

The awards were started with a specific intent: to acknowledge individuals who have given money and/or concrete assets in the pursuit of assisting others, thereby inspiring others to give too. Hundreds of thousands regularly volunteer their time and skill, and as many give generously to innumerable causes. Philanthropists do just that bit more.

True philanthropists analyse the world and the issues for which they have a passion - whether the environment, their city or their politics - and put their money there in a focused and deliberate way This need not be huge amounts of money Often an ordinary person puts what resources they have into an organisation and this creates leverage for other funding. Philanthropists engage with organisations and individuals who are at the rock face, find out how their money is spent, provide ongoing backing, and effect systemic and sustained change. Philanthropists and their causes are as diverse, plentiful, hardy and colourful as our Cape fynbos.

There is no pattern, no appropriate age and no converging set of economic and social circumstances that need to be fulfilled in order to become a philanthropist. Barriers to entry are virtually non-existent as the ability to give requires little more than a vision and will. And the benefits are many First, philanthropists can take risks. They are not answerable to the voter or the shareholder. They can invest in cutting edge initiatives or support new discoveries that push our boundaries of knowledge. New ideas generally develop on the fringe, such as the women's movement and the environmental crusade.

These movements did not come into being supported by governments or the corporate sector. On the contrary it would not have been in their interest to do so. The funds came from people, rich and poor, who were passionate about the issues. This is philanthropic money Funding that is strategic; that supports changing society for the good, and that ultimately promotes social justice.

Second, philanthropy need not demand the immediate results business expects. Social change takes time, and philanthropists, who are usually visionary and pragmatic, understand it takes time to deliver (and measure) social impact. For example, the Green Movement began in the 1960s, but we are really only seeing its effects now. It is the philanthropists who doggedly continued to support this movement through decades in the face of sometimes overwhelming ridicule and opposition.

Third, philanthropy is not necessarily democratic. Tax (theoretically) is, even if it is not always distributed fairly or effectively However, the philanthropic rand can be spent on issues and causes which resonate with the giver, irrespective of government agendas. There are innumerable projects and pro grammes from hunger to skills development, learning to food gardens, HIV/Aids to art, that have benefited thousands in South Africa because someone with money believed it had value.

Last year, Jordan van der Walt, a 12year-old Johannesburg boy became the youngest person to receive an lnyathelo philanthropy award for his Just One Bag project to feed schoolchildren. That campaign has collected more than 80 tons of maize meal, over 50 schools have joined and more than 500 000 children have taken a bag of maize meal to school. One young boy's idea was simply that if we all gave just one bag we would make a difference - and in one year a million children were fed.

Grace Masuku received the Inyathelo lifetime community philanthropy award at the age of 80. She was named a national living treasure by the South African Heritage Council for her extraordinary commitment to the environment and use of local knowledge and wisdom to create sustainable and ecologically sensitive economic projects. She still uses her pension to visit villages to provide training and ideas for businesses. Her first project, Letswanana, begun 21 years ago, continues to yield herbs used to treat diseases. Her most public project, Podi-Boswa ("goat, our inheritance"), has provided more than 1 000 people with sustainable livelihoods by producing leather products from goat hides. Asked why she has devoted her life to helping others she said it was not about changing the world because you are educated. It was not about richness or being rich. It was about having the spirit of giving and having the correct attitude.

Philanthropy has a clear place in our lives. Our civil society will not survive without it. Our task is to begin to explore our philanthropic roles and seriously think about what we can do rather than what we need and then just start.

Mitchell is an associate of Inyathelo: The SA Institute for Advancement