The Gates effect: Social entrepreneurship reframes charity

Kerryn Krige: Senior programme manager, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria

'Spark Schools is reinventing our concepts of quality and accessible education' (Image: Spark Schools)

In July last year, 3 000 people streamed into a hall in Mamelodi and more than 300 000 people logged on to Facebook to listen to Bill Gates deliver the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.

He delivered the lecture as the founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a foundation unrivalled in wealth and power. After discussions with students, civil society and academics, the foundation hosted a dialogue on philanthropy. What were some of the key themes that emerged?

Civil society is the cornerstone of developing societies. It provides services that government and business can’t, and strives for equality by flying the flag of social justice.

It is the epitome of humanity: these are the organisations that constantly strive to improve the lives of people. It holds our neoliberal system in check, providing a counter-point to the self-interest that underpins capitalism.

But what if our civil society is hurting our society, inadvertently perpetuating the divides of haves and have-nots, the stark lines of difference that define inequality?

In South Africa our civil society is funded by benevolence, the age-old concept of charity: alms to the poor. We relegate the funding of our societal progress to corporate social investment mandates, charitable drives and an array of grants from philanthropists and foundations to make things work. It is through generosity that we provide essential services in child protection, hospice care, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

But the question to ask is: Who benefits from this act of giving? Is it the recipient — thankful for the funds so that they can deliver their essential service, or the receiver, whose humanity and sense of good citizenship is reaffirmed by the action of giving?

The irony in funding our social development with acts of benevolence is that it perpetuates our inequality. This is because the act of benevolence positions the donor as a have and the beneficiary as a have-not, reinforcing our perceptions of privilege and fortune.

By creating a system that allows civil society to do its work with our generosity, ironically we perpetuate the inequality divide rather than bridge it. This is something we cannot afford: South Africa’s social development failures are well documented — in our leading position on the Gini Index, the rank we shared with Syria on the Human Development Index in 2014 and the fizzing demographic of our youth unemployment.

And the reality that we cannot continue to ignore is that our social development is imploding our economic growth.

What is required is a refocusing of our attention from that gratitude of benevolence to the equality and choice that is offered by that most capitalist verb: profit.

Our neoliberal system has two types of organisations — for profit companies that generate economic value, and not-for-profit companies that generate social value. But what happens when we explore the terrain in between these poles? When we start conjoining the values-driven world of charity with the profit motive of business?

Profit and social change are poor partners, often associated with exploitation, abuse and manipulation. But when framed against the progressive values of civil society that hold those practices in check, it becomes a powerful equaliser.

This is the world of social entrepreneurship, which explores the space between for and not-for-profit companies, delivering both social and economic value. By introducing profit, the insidious consequences of benevolence are redressed, without compromising the delivery of those essential services that we rely on civil society to provide.

It is a model that is thriving quietly in South Africa — with organisations such as the Brien Holden Vision Institute delivering free eye healthcare to people in rural areas, funded by its development of technology that makes contact lenses work. Then there’s Spark Schools, which is reinventing our concepts of quality and accessible education. And Reel Gardens, the grocery store seed boxes that support food gardens in schools across the country.

Social entrepreneurs see opportunity where others see constraint, setting up businesses that take on those issues that we see as neglected, seemingly impossible to fix: our education system, food security, improved healthcare for all — the divides of inequality.

When we stop thinking of social change as the benevolent deed that makes us good people, and instead approach it through the equalising lens of profit, we reframe our view. We move on from the patronising to the pragmatic, focusing on the dual environment of social and economic returns offered by social entrepreneurship.