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Whither philanthropy in a post-Covid-19 world?


Shelagh Gastrow provides advisory services to the philanthropy sector, higher education advancement and non-profit sustainability. She works with individuals and families on how to integrate their wealth and their values into meaningful and effective philanthropy. From 2002-2015 she was founder and executive director of Inyathelo and focused her efforts on strengthening civil society and universities through programmes to develop their financial sustainability whilst promoting philanthropy in SA. Her work has gained public recognition locally and internationally.

Most philanthropic endowments are invested in the stock market, and that has crashed globally. While philanthropic entities in South Africa have provided additional grants through this crisis, they will be evaluating what is left and where it can best go to achieve a maximum impact.

There is no doubt that in living memory we have not lived through any emergency that has arisen as acutely as that caused by Covid-19. Each day is difficult to predict, especially as we in South Africa wait for the deluge to flood us, or it may at least take a long time to get through this. We cannot foresee when we will come out of lockdown and whether life will ever be normal again. Essentially, we will be looking at post-normal society and, in many respects, the great unknown.

There have been many issues that have arisen out of both the virus and the lockdown. These include a heightened awareness on the part of the haves, how their existence and futures are tied inextricably to the have-nots; a shift in how we live and a recognition of the difference between what we need and what we want; the role of alternative forms of communication and the future of work; awareness that the market cannot be relied on to provide solutions (in fact where the market rules absolutely we have seen the worst in state capacity to deal with this crisis); a growing sense of authoritarianism and isolationism as we seal our borders.

This disease has highlighted inequality, gender-based violence, xenophobia, human rights and surveillance, the crucial role of the media and the efficacy of social media. At the same time, we have witnessed extraordinary efforts relating to self-help, cross-community assistance, an outpouring of support and unsung heroes, including those in the medical field, garbage collectors, police and army personnel, agricultural workers and those involved in the delivery of food and other goods and services. 

In South Africa we have seen significant financial contributions by some of our wealthiest families, along with probably many millions of rand of help provided by ordinary South Africans in the form of money, goods and time to individuals and to non-profit organisations that have changed gear and are now working to sustain and support many communities in need. 

Yet, this will slow down and then we have to ask ourselves whether or not we go back to business as usual. Is that even possible in a situation where businesses have been devastated, breadwinners may have died, pension schemes will be decimated and the unemployment rate will be unbearable?

The best brains we have are no doubt exploring this scenario. Politically, there will hopefully be some shifts in that the right and centre-right must surely acknowledge the role and responsibility of the state in relation to the poor and vulnerable, while the left might have to come to understand that there are limits to our resources and that it is a fable that South Africa still has many wealthy people – they are long gone, not to mention the trillions of rand that disappeared during State Capture.

Where does philanthropy go? Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that philanthropic funds in South Africa, in comparison to the corporate sector and the government’s tax base, are small. In addition, most endowments are invested in the stock market, and that has crashed globally. If left with any rand cash in hand, this has also devalued dramatically. While philanthropic entities in South Africa have provided additional grants through this crisis, they will be evaluating what is left and where it can best go to achieve maximum impact.

Previously, the concept of maximum impact often meant going to scale, but perhaps there has been a realisation that context needs to dictate intervention – each community is different, with different needs. What works in one place, will not necessarily work in another. Localisation may, therefore, become more effective, along with a realisation that each strengthened community is linked to another and the impact might be slow, but, like ripples in a pond, changes do happen. Most important will be the role of social leadership in communities, the corporate sector, government and the non-profit sector. We will need leaders who can connect, engage, build networks, build trust, communicate, cooperate and collaborate. This holds true for philanthropy as well. 

Simultaneously, there have been macro changes that have been highlighted by this pandemic. In particular, the digital revolution has taken a prime place in our lives. This revolution has enabled us to survive this crisis, and our smartphones have played a key role in messaging, informing and connecting with loved ones while our laptops have kept some level of education on the go. 3D printers are producing masks and other personal protection equipment for hospital personnel.  At the same time, it has enabled the government to undertake surveillance of the population to track potential infections. We need to guard our rights to privacy and ensure that other ominous consequences of surveillance such as the facial recognition that is broadly used in China do not become standard practice in South Africa.

In addition, people have begun to ask whether the democratic system is still viable. Countries that are more authoritarian, such as Rwanda, China and Singapore, seem to have been able to move more quickly to deal with the pandemic. For years we have seen admiring eyes focused on Rwanda in Africa as the poster child for development, yet this has been at a huge cost to human rights and a free media. This trend to explore a move away from democratic values should be carefully monitored.

Most importantly, we will frankly be faced with an economic depression once this is all over.  There is no other word for it. How the government and the private sector react is still to be seen, but what is possible through philanthropy?

As mentioned, philanthropy does not have billions to bail out South Africa, yet it has enough money to lead change. It has convening power, it can take risk and it can move quickly. For example, one of the advantages of the Solidarity Fund established during the pandemic, a special purpose vehicle that received Public Benefit status quickly, was that it could, for example, purchase equipment without an arduous, heavy-going tender system that government accountability requires. 

This period is an opportunity for many foundations to review their founding documents, to rethink purpose in a changed world. International philanthropic entities may need to loosen the reins on local offices and trust that they will invest appropriately for their contexts. The question is then, where can and where should philanthropy leverage change?

There will be multiple opportunities and while some foundations and philanthropists might continue to go solo, there is an increased awareness of the need to work together. Areas of support could include some of the obvious such as the very urgent need to deal with issues of inequality, whether in healthcare (particularly primary healthcare), education at all levels, access to water, sanitation and transport as well as housing. In addition, finally acknowledging the role of spaza shops and other micro-businesses, there will need to be some way of assisting people who work in the informal sector. A society that does not undertake its own research is paralysed through a lack of data and analysis. We will, therefore, need interventions to support universities and other research bodies, including the non-profit sector, to provide our government with home-grown research into all aspects of society, thereby improving our policy environment.  

At the same time, we need to ensure ongoing support for a free investigative media to provide a window on the world, and we should not forget that we are human and that our arts and culture need to continue to thrive, not just to provide for jobs, but for our own spiritual well-being. We should also remain attentive to global criminal networks that are no doubt already scoping new opportunities that await them after this crisis, taking into account a clampdown on trade in wildlife. There are already indications that these networks have moved into the arena of counterfeit medicine.

There is surely enormous fuel for thought for philanthropy, but we have learnt from this experience and can be confident that although the game has changed, people will continue to keep giving. DM


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