The Role of Philanthropy in Supporting Systems Change. Louise Driver. IPASA Newsletter. September 2021.

The Role of Philanthropy in Supporting Systems Change through Transformational Giving

By Louise Driver – Executive Director of IPASA

There has been much debate lately about what the role of philanthropy should be both now and into the future. Philanthropy has been required both to be the first responders, to work at lightning speed to address the immediate needs of disasters, as well as to be the long-term investors in slowly tackling deep problems which would take years, if not decades to solve. It is becoming increasingly evident that philanthropy needs to balance both these roles – supporting deep, long-term systems change work to make South African society stronger, more equitable and resilient while still providing effective emergency support when needed. In this way philanthropy can address the underlying issues which ultimately lead to these disasters and emergencies.

Despite the critical role philanthropy plays in our society, it still has not been able to make a significant impact on solving the ever-escalating social and economic problems in our country. This is thought largely to be due to an inability of philanthropy to transform its practise, structures, mindsets, and power dynamics which is required to change systems to deal with the root causes of these problems. Systems change work is imperative in focusing on changing societal issues at the root rather than looking at the symptoms of the issues that philanthropy is trying to address. It is however often complex, difficult, and overwhelming work that is practically impossible to do alone so collaboration is vital. Systems change requires a significant shift in the thought processes of funders as it requires a very long-term commitment with no clear timelines, is extremely difficult to evaluate and brings some degree of risk.

There is no doubt that philanthropy needs to transform in order to change systems to impactfully deal with our country’s challenging and complex issues. This change, known as transformative philanthropy, is based on an understanding of our shared humanity and mutuality and recognizes that we need to transform all those working in philanthropy in order to truly transform the world.

Transformational philanthropy requires that funders think about policies and practices that exist that may exacerbate the problem or at least maintain the status quo. It requires funders to re-examine their understanding of the problem and their approaches to solving it; their underlying assumptions; and the way they understand impact can be achieved. It means transforming one’s approach to grant-making by re-evaluating what drives your grant-making processes and by transforming your network by expanding the number and range of voices you are listening to, and receiving input and advice from. Transformational giving requires courage and creativity as funders need to become both bolder and humbler in order to bring about deep systemic change.

In this newsletter, we take a close look at the role of philanthropy in bringing about system change in terms of addressing core social justice issues and the underlying issues of unrest and disasters, including the exploitation of big data and social media to undermine social and political cohesion. We also look at the importance of funding and co-creating projects with local organisations that have both the knowledge and understanding of the local context as well as have a long-term commitment to the communities in which they work.

IPASA is committed to working with our members and the philanthropy sector in South Africa to guide them in this process of transforming philanthropy at its heart to reimagine and redesign it to be more participatory, diverse, and bold in dealing with the deep root causes of our society’s ills.



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