Heart-led Philanthropy to Improve Financial and Social Returns on Investment. Gary Shearer. The Saville Foundation. IPASA Newsletter. July 2021.

Heart-led Philanthropy to Improve Financial and Social Returns on Investment

Gary Shearer, Executive Director of The Saville Foundation

Can philanthropy deliver what is expected?

Much has been written about the role philanthropy could play in resetting our fractured and extraordinarily polarised modern world. However, there are disagreements about the way forward. Great resets being mooted. New economic systems. Technology that will save the day. New apps that can entice, cajole, and inform students across the spectrum. Increasing numbers of global forums and think-tanks. Yet, very little is changing.

At the same time, there are inspiring discussions taking place around what is ‘wrong’ with education and how we can look to reverse its trajectory, with rapidly growing consensus that the system is out of touch and not educating children and young people appropriately for this era. And, as always, philanthropy is very much in the mix of most discussions and initiatives by virtue of its mythical ability to be flexible and take risks – and to link role-players across the spectrum – from Governments, to Social Entrepreneurs, NGOs, and communities. But is this true? Can philanthropy do it? Or is it being accorded a status it cannot deliver to?

An imperfect playing field

There is no question that the world is in turmoil, but in general, responses to alter the status quo and find ways to alleviate the turbulence do not embrace the interconnectedness and interdependence of humanity and the environment, or the necessity for co-created societal systems, as they are mostly external or structural.

Currently, deliverables rule. But too often these only plaster over the deep systemic issues that need attention – which are mostly around the wellbeing, nurturing and support of the humans within each system. On top of that, from what we have seen and experienced within the developmental and institutional philanthropic world, over almost two decades of unconstrained exploration and broad investigative soul-searching, there is an unending, almost obsessive focus and dependence on responses based on research and data. Make really sure before engaging. Basically, back yourself up with data.

In most cases, these ‘interventions’ as they are inappropriately known, are linked to a heavy reliance on taught systems without enough fresh genuinely open-minded and imaginative thinking. Or critically, lacking direct engagement and input from those the interventions purport to be assisting or serving. In fact, there is a growing view that too much in this sector is driven by innovative tools, buzzwords and trends – that may or may not be fit for purpose. Critics believe that philanthropy and development in general are stuck in a self-serving ego loop. From the experiences we have had, we concur, having seen that it is not technology or Artificial Intelligence (AI), or highly touted propositions of scale or systems change, or even cleverly crafted financial mechanisms like Social Impact investments that are ultimately going to solve society’s most pressing challenges.

What is becoming clear is that we need to recognise our connectedness across the spectrum and begin by meeting people where they are at, jointly finding ways to cocreate a more flourishing world while developing deeper senses of our (common) selves.

New paradigms

The criticisms levelled at the philanthropic world are not only being levelled at the sector, as there are other role-players, particularly government and to a lesser extent business, that are also being found wanting. Frustration from communities or education institutions at unmet promises, based on existing methodologies and historical paradigms of provision to resolve or alleviate issues, is high. Paradoxically, many global discussion forums are starting to agree that what is required is a slower process, involving deeper consultation and engagement that ultimately would lead to co-creation of responses involving the people themselves – typically facilitated by the social sector and supported by role-players from within philanthropy and business.

Fortunately, there is also a slow but inexorable shift towards thinking from the heart within the sector, with an increasing number of discussions taking place around the crucial missing elements of wellbeing and inside-out work within development, that are often not being seen or applied. There are already groups like The Wellbeing Project, elements of the global Catalyst 2030 network, and large forums such as the People First project and others, looking more closely at these vital aspects in the quest to improve deliverables in the development world.

As these more intangible elements of putting people first and at the centre of all initiatives gain traction – to add to the element of deeper listening to those being assisted – the development world could start experiencing dramatic shifts in the wellbeing and advancement of individuals and communities across the globe.

Our journey

In the formative years of our own journey, we made mistakes and poor investments. These included investing without enough deep listening to the background story; not enough macro analysis of the situation within each initiative or sector; thinking ‘we knew’ what would be the best route to follow; being too open and eager to quickly support what was requested; and providing funding too easily without enough accountability. All taught us many lessons.

It was only when we started querying and paying more attention to what we were missing, or what was actually required by those from within each specific sector, school or community, that we started connecting with practitioners who were meeting the genuine needs of each environment. Our willingness to experiment and explore, while requesting deeper involvement around the strategic, operational and financial aspects of each entity not only bore fruit, but also grew levels of trust and openness that enabled us to provide insight and feedback at all levels of each initiative. We still always make sure we stay fully engaged with people inside the schools or communities themselves, to continue listening, and to pass back any information or perspectives we find that may strengthen each programme.

Our journey of learning is underpinned by our absolute commitment to taking heed in a much more open-minded and conscious way, while we explore the most effective ways to assist and partner. What has also become very apparent to us is that many of our richest lessons have emerged out of the deep challenges and turmoil of South Africa, where our journey began. The mix of economies and skills, the diversity of race groups, the levels of poverty, and the overall combination of cultures and beliefs have created responses that are exceptional, and contemporaneously, have increasing global relevance.

In fact, in many ways, countries like South Africa (and India, Bangladesh and others) have elements and initiatives that are ahead of the curve of social development globally, because of the challenging backgrounds and the extreme need in each locale. Increasingly, we are seeing the value and appropriateness of these offerings, and we believe that philanthropies in the Global South should put more energy into sharing their lessons – and conversely that the Global North should take heed of and expand its understanding of the development of people in relevant contextual situations.
(See the text box below for lessons from South Africa)

Concluding reflections

It has been an astonishing and rewarding journey – and a realisation that the increasingly verbalised mantra of paying more attention to ‘The Global South’ is a must. The exciting aspect of this deeper listening and engaging more directly with the actual role-players in each environment, is that our (non-financial) ‘ROI’ substantially improved, and our overall investment success rate increased dramatically. In all instances our approach is not budget or funding driven as funding is only a component of what we offer, not the driver.

Our strategic partnerships across the spectrum are attracting increasing interest because they often unearth new paradigms, new approaches, and a new awareness of what is required. Given our size, our return on investment has far exceeded our expectations, and so to share our lessons, over the past five years we have been engaging internationally to explore, and where possible nurture, the potential of how the big picture scale impelled outside-in approach can be changed in partnership with other like-minded organisations or individuals.

To supplement this, we are active members of various meaningful global movements and philanthropic think-tanks looking to deliver more effectively, and based on our own journey, where relevant, we offer our strategic insights and lessons as well as access to the game changing projects we support, to contribute to the change required. We firmly believe that progress will not be made by imposing our systems and solutions onto the people we look to assist, but rather by partnering, careful listening and co-creating a new way forward with them. Basically, we all need to look at what each of us does with different eyes, and in the mirror of each other, learn and grow a new understanding of what philanthropy (the love of humanity) means.




Lessons from South Africa  

In our own eco-system, we have globally relevant and game-changing offerings across the board, and besides the extraordinary contribution to their own regions and areas of focus, the value that all these initiatives have developed in the challenging arena of South Africa are often being used as Case Studies in their fields in other countries, providing new approaches for inclusion in the macro global environment.


Early Childhood Development 

We start with the youngest children in the Early Childhood Development sector as a foundation for change. Here we are integral supporters of GROW ECD, that not only offers semi-sustainable high quality ECD in communities around the poverty income line but has also developed what seems to be a globally unique ECD management system in a world class programme developed in the challenging environment of South Africa. The system has recently been turned into an App that has been made available free to the entire ECD sector in South Africa, with plans to offer it elsewhere across the globe in the near future.


Junior and high school

In the junior and high school arena we have TLT (Tomorrow’s Leaders in Training) who play an increasingly important and in-demand role in the public and private school realm in SA within Life Orientation (LO), where they look to connect to, understand and support young people, the leaders of the future, from the inside-out.


Tertiary education

We also engage in the tertiary realm, where we support a number of powerful game-changing initiatives, including the national Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme known as ISFAP, where the core of the initiative is informed by the experiences and lessons learnt out of our almost 20 years of support of UCT’s Educational Development Unit at the Commerce faculty. Another extraordinary entity in the tertiary sector that we seed-funded in 2007, is the incredible consciousness-based Maharishi Institute led by Dr Taddy Blecher, with the institute now undergoing due diligence by a global philanthropic role-player to spread its highly successful model into other countries.


Individual & Community Development

And finally, within broader individual and community development, we support the national Greenlight Movement in South Africa. The movement provides a platform inspired by the Stoplight tool to scaffold organisations and support the vital inner work that activates the will, self-belief and drive that enables participants to take ownership and charge of their own lives. The Greenlight Movement now has almost 90 NGOs and development agency members, as well as an increasing number of corporates contributing to a conscious movement to engage with and enable individuals across the spectrum.



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