In our view

The blind spot in our understanding of philanthropy

By Alfred Thutloa, Philanthropy Programme Coordinator at Inyathelo.

On 22 April 2013, lifestyle magazine Ebony published a column by community engagement blogger Ebonie Johnson Cooper titled “Young Black Philanthropist is not an Oxymoron”. Cooper said she recently had to defend the use of the word “philanthropist” to describe herself and the cohort of young, Black community leaders who gave of their time and financial resources to help those less privileged. She had been challenged by a member of one of the wealthiest Black families in the United States, who told her that calling herself a philanthropist is like calling an average student a scholar.

Ironically, Cooper is a young African American woman living in the developed world and one would assume that with the United States boasting a long history of volunteerism and institutionalised philanthropy, her words are just meanderings of a prolific blogger. However this is not the case.

Firstly her interpretation reveals her own struggles with patriarchal and archaic notions of philanthropy and, secondly, her experiences have universal resonance as she surfaces trite ideologies about the structures and forms of philanthropy in the South.

In the African context, very little is known about the philanthropic landscape as a whole and in South Africa a few studies have looked at patterns of giving such as The State of Social Giving in South Africa report, which looked to generate information and provide analyses of resource flows to address poverty and development. In addition, literature about philanthropy in Africa is from the perspective of a novel and budding phenomenon, words such as traditional giving and grassroots philanthropy seem to form part of this discourse.

Messages emanating from the developed world also seem to reinforce the idea that philanthropy is a Western import. The March 2013 edition of Alliance magazine, for example, an international resource of information on philanthropy and social investment, refers to “new forms of African philanthropy,” suggesting either that previously there was none or primordial examples of philanthropy in the region.

The author focused on how she had to take ownership of the term ‘philanthropist’ and self-identify as one. Cooper had to challenge how “the term has only been applied to the extremely wealthy, who also happen to be White.” This notion of owning a name or term that previously had negative connotations, either for the individual or collectively, can also be observed in gay and lesbian literature and communities were the word queer has become part of contemporary dialogue and their self-identity.

Rick Iedema, Professor of Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology in Sydney, refers to resemiotization, which is about “how meaning making shifts from context to context, from practice to practice, or from one stage of a practice to the next.” Cooper in essence had to recontexualise (resemiotise) her understanding of what defines a philanthropist.

In order for the term ‘philanthropist’ to form part of an index of her identity, Cooper had to reframe her negative association with the term as the preserve of privileged white males. This shift could only take place once the author separated gender, socioeconomic status and skin colour to philanthropy. Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement has been recognised for the role played in growing philanthropy in South Africa, through the annual Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards. Inyathelo has profiled and recognised a large cohort of philanthropists, of all colours and creed, from small level community philanthropists to high earning individuals and families. Perhaps this response to Cooper’s article is best concluded in the words of Amanda Bloch who received the 2007 Inyathelo Philanthropy Award in Health, when she says that:

The Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards have certainly debunked this myth! In our country and in our context, it is possible for anyone to be a philanthropist! Philanthropy is not defined by the size of the give nor by the bank balance of the giver or their skin colour! Most often I feel it is defined by the passion and determination of the giver, their commitment to change and the courage to call others to stand with them. We have so many amazing awards alumni who stand as testimony to the kind of philanthropy that impacts the lives of our citizens in our context.

Nominations have opened for the 7th annual Inyathelo Philanthropy Awards! You can nominate your philanthropy hero by filling in a simple online nomination form on the Philanthropy SA website or by contacting This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 021-465 6981/2