Philanthrophy needs to stop being about rich people

Nicolette Naylor: Regional director, Ford Foundation, Southern Africa

Any conversation about philanthropy needs to acknowledge the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy as being rooted in inequality and capitalism. (Image: Pixabay)

Any conversation about philanthropy needs to acknowledge the cultural underpinnings of philanthropy as being rooted in inequality and capitalism. As Martin Luther King Jnr. Proclaimed: "Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary."

I am not a high net worth individual (HNWI) like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or Aliko Dangote, I have not attained the status of excessive wealth nor is it my family money that I 'work' with as the Regional Director of the Ford Foundation, Southern Africa. But yet, my position as a South African citizen and Regional Director of a US-based social justice philanthropy based in Southern Africa distributing approximately $14-million (R197 million) places me in a position of power. That's a lot of money and power – used to fight power and money. It makes one wonder whether these levels of resources can ever be equated with our ability to bring about change.

Does money and power determine one's ability to reduce inequality or is it money and power that is at the root of our inequality crisis in the region and if so can we deploy these resources for good? There is a mounting uneasiness with income inequality and the spread of an economic populism that refuses to regard the concentration of wealth charitably.

There are now calls for people in the global South to defy the notion of the "often white, male, wealthy, do-gooder and savior" the very notion of a supreme savior in the form of a HNWI or Foundation coming to save a poor community has been disrupted in a profound way requiring us to reimagine philanthropy as we know it.

The "love of humanity" is meant to embody philanthropy – at its core which means we need far greater introspection beyond the notion of ourselves as the prime "do-gooders" in society at a time when it has become so hard to see any evidence of "love" or "humanity" in current philanthropic practices which may in fact be fueling inequality and dependence rather than alleviating it.

"We foundations need to reject inherited, assumed, paternalist instincts... We need to interrogate the fundamental root causes of inequality, even, and especially, when it means that we ourselves will be implicated."

I believe philanthropy is potentially a force for good but it is also a force which is rooted in inequality, which has challenges based on its structure particularly around power relations, its undemocratic nature and the challenges of creating dependence instead of sustainability. But this does not take away that philanthropy can be one of many catalytic tools to address inequality, provided we interrogate that catalytic role and put in place mechanisms to check our own power and privilege at every turn recognizing that even though we may be social justice foundations and charitable trusts fighting inequality - power and privilege continue to permeate the corridors of social justice Foundations - no matter how hard we try to tell ourselves that it does not.

To quote Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation's President: "We foundations need to reject inherited, assumed, paternalist instincts... We need to interrogate the fundamental root causes of inequality, even, and especially, when it means that we ourselves will be implicated". Are we willing to interrogate the root causes of inequality even if we implicate ourselves?

Nelson Mandela Foundation

If we say that change stems from the powerless assuming power themselves then it requires foundations to cede power to others when it comes to making decisions about how money is spent to uplift communities and to start asking who sets the agenda and strategy for foundations? It requires us to abandon our notions of wealth equaling knowledge where we then give ourselves permission to define the problem and the solution through long strategy processes in fancy, air-conditioned boardrooms. Instead it requires us to believe in the capacity of ordinary people to solve their own problems.

We must move away from notions that only the wealthy want to give and do good.

My own interrogation of personal power has led me to the conclusion that we need to be more curious about models of philanthropy that move away from the U.S to recognize the Ubuntu-like nature of philanthropy ("I am because you are") where the inherent dignity of all are of prime importance. We need to recognize that most philanthropy takes place in small doses in private within communities to change something or someone's life. We must move away from notions that only the wealthy want to give and do good - people with little disposable income are eager to give, feel good when they give and they do it for the love of humanity, not for a tax break or to create more wealth.

Most importantly, we should never forget that people have been helping and giving to each other horizontally across African communities and townships since time immemorial. We are all (including a child of the Cape Flats township like me) beneficiaries of this system of giving that is rooted in our connectedness with our communities.

So, let us collectively start promoting philanthropy that is rooted in principles of Ubuntu and solidarity between African people – a philanthropy that is diverse and diffuse, where we have millions of givers not limited to HNWI or international Foundations but made up of people like you and me who define social ills, set goals and priorities, and marshal resources to attack problems within the very communities within which we live and thereby influence policy and change.

Perhaps this reimagined space could create some momentum for us to refer to philanthropy as "democracy in action."

* This is an excerpt of a talk given by Nicolette Naylor at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which has hosted dialogues on the current practices of philanthropy, intent, gatekeeping of wealth, and responsibility.