Insights from the 2023 IPASA Annual Review of South African Philanthropy

Yogavelli Nambiar, CEO of Niara Advisory

Yogi was the editor of the 2024 Annual Review of South African Philanthropy and IPASA asked her to share the insights she gained about philanthropy through the process of compiling the Review. 

Different perspectives in a dynamic and evolving landscape

Philanthropy in South Africa reflects a dynamic and evolving landscape, shaped by historical challenges and contemporary efforts to create a more just and equitable society. From foundations and corporate entities to individual philanthropists, associations and academic institutions, diverse actors contribute to addressing pressing issues such as education, healthcare, job creation and climate change. While challenges persist, the transformative impact of philanthropy is evident in the lives of those who benefit from its initiatives.

The Annual Review of South African Philanthropy amplifies stories of social change to inspire the sector; and is aimed at deepening our collective understanding of what makes the interventions behind social impact effective and where impact is not the result, what could have been done better. To do that, it is necessary to absorb different perspectives, to interrogate different methods and approaches used, and to open them up for debate to the nugget of learning that lies within.

In my experience, not everyone in our sector is as excited about the interrogation and debate part. We don’t like to be challenged because in it, we perhaps see an implicit judgement despite us doing ‘good work’. Where senior people might view their role as a ‘job’, it often follows that they will tread softly, protecting their territories and positions of power, and avoid confrontation with the cold reality of a system with varied and sometimes, extreme perspectives.

Our theme for this year’s IPASA Annual Review of South African Philanthropy was leadership. from the review had just under 30 contributors – most directly from the world of philanthropy, and others in supplementary areas that provide support to the sector – with a wonderful range of diverse perspectives.

Leadership for collaboration and innovation  

The power of partnerships was well demonstrated, from examples of collaborative leadership on the local and international stage that bring together philanthropic and community knowledge, capital investment from different givers for greater impact, or social enterprise models with large global institutions for geographic reach.. While collaboration is often spoken about, what was especially powerful was having real stories in practice.

It was enlightening to see how innovative and strategic thinking assists us to plan, lead, and fund in an agile way – especially helping us to rise to the challenges of a global crisis such as the pandemic and the evolving needs of a disruptive future, not just as a knee-jerk response but with a clear long-term vision. Hearing the stories and insights behind how visionary leadership harnesses the use of technology and artificial intelligence to address immediate needs is inspiring. Additionally, it broadens our understanding of the opportunities available to efficiently refine and scale our work.

The Review shared the opportunities that emerge from the variety of innovative financing mechanisms available; and were prompted to think about approaches that test traditional philanthropic power dynamics such as trust-based philanthropy. The level of humility and vulnerability required for this approach to work means that those who are accustomed to providing instructions and making excessive reporting demands will first need a mindset shift. Likewise, the impact-by-design leadership philosophy and strategy adopts a rights-based approach to development and has developed specific leadership behaviours to ensure its effectiveness.

The Review also examined different levels of leadership – board and executive – within an organisation, and the importance of being aligned while respecting the nuanced roles of each, and public sector leadership, without which other forms of social change support could fail. At the same time, we need to build the future generation of leaders, and the recent chant “Stronger Together” reminds us of the power of sport to help us do just that. This forms the basis for the impressive work being done by Laureus Sport for Good Foundation.

A range of social issues were covered too – examining the intersection between climate change and social justice, uncovering best practices on education using a prize mechanism, supporting healthcare through public sector leadership, giving personal growth and dignity of work to domestic workers through technology and innovation, progressing community development, entrepreneurship education and support, early childhood, and youth development, among others.

Furthermore, it was enlightening to have profiles on leadership in action with a philanthropist, a leader of a philanthropic institution, and the leader of a social enterprise offering insight into what makes them effective and inspirational leaders.

Insights about philanthropy

Through the process of curating contributions on the above, many insights emerged on philanthropy in South Africa, a sample of which are shared below:

  • Leaders in Philanthropy show a strong understanding and empathy of the unique South African context. There is a greater consciousness of how the country’s history and its repercussions have affected almost every social challenge; and how dysfunctional systems mean that solutions need to take into account the person and community more holistically. There is a heartening level of awareness and empathy shown by philanthropic leaders in the intentionality behind how they design and deliver interventions. This drive for social justice recognises the imbalances of the past and has also resulted in intentional work to create more sensitised organisational cultures.
  • Philanthropic choices demonstrate the presence of bold and courageous leadership. Foundations such as the RAITH Foundation are taking unconventional pathways on what philanthropy can and should be funding – areas that may be seen as politicised and sensitive such as democracy, governance, and transparency, and could potentially place the organisation in the line of criticism and yet, the foundation recognises that true inclusion cannot manifest without these critical national elements in place. Courage may take different forms though; in other cases, it might be in experimentation and innovation to try new strategies and tools, and yet others, it might be the courage to humbly relinquish power in relationships with implementing partners as was done by the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project.
  • Philanthropy needs to be more critical of itself. It appears that many leaders tend to be polite and conservative in their analyses of the sector rather than openly interrogate it for fear of being perceived to think they are superior. Therefore, it tends to be safer to discuss the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why; easier to discuss how to support an issue than to question systems of wealth. This is not just a South African phenomenon. On the global level, there is still a sense of philanthropists not being questioned due to gratitude for their good work. However, this means that we may often sidestep the really difficult conversations around capitalism and inequality – and how philanthropy could help shift systems rather than just provide symptomatic relief, as is the criticism of Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World and NextGen philanthropists. Not only will the sector not improve without this questioning, but it could inadvertently contribute to the preservation of existing power dynamics and inequalities. That said, with many of our contributors to the publication, I found an encouraging appetite for these types of provocative conversations and perhaps a search for safe and suitable platforms on which to have them. It is also important to note that this does not apply universally, and many philanthropic organizations actively strive to address these concerns.

Reflection and engaging with critique

Acknowledging and engaging with these critiques is essential for fostering a more transparent, accountable, and equitable philanthropy sector that genuinely contributes to positive social transformation. There is no doubt that the sector is a force for good, but we also need to be reflective about where and how we can improve. We must direct more specific, challenging, and learning-focused questions toward ourselves and our work. We won’t always get it right, but without the humility to pose tough questions that demand fresh insights, we risk perpetuating the very challenges we aim to address. Some of this reflection and interrogation should be about the quality of our decision-making and the potential biases that may be influencing it as leaders.

As South Africa navigates its path forward, philanthropy stands as a beacon of hope, embodying the collective commitment to building a brighter and more inclusive future. I do not doubt that as the sector continues to evolve, we will find more effective ways to collaboratively create systemic change with just, equitable, and sustainable outcomes for all our people.

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