Defend Truth


Philanthropic investments in education are among our most urgent priorities


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.

South Africa has a wealth of organisations that are involved in the education space and philanthropy recognises that until we fix education, most progress is hindered.

It is a well-known fact that corporate social investment and private philanthropy in South Africa are heavily invested in education at all levels. This is not accidental, but is based on strategic decisions on what needs to be prioritised in the country in order to progress. Nelson Mandela once said “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

Unfortunately this has not come to fruition in South Africa and our levels of education, particularly in basic education, have plunged to one of the worst in the world. We may well ask ourselves why, taking into account the high percentage of the national budget that is set aside for education. There are multiple reasons given, from the use of English which is a second language for most learners, lack of facilities, poor school administration, low levels of teaching skills to a host of other explanations. Yet other countries, where finances are dire, still seem to produce outcomes better than ours.

There are some who have cautioned against philanthropic investment in government schools on the basis that while the situation is so desperate, the funds just go down a never-ending pit with no outcome. For example, many research reports have outlined shockingly low levels of numeracy among learners, linked to poorly equipped mathematics teachers, many of whom are teaching beyond their own levels of knowledge. This results in a great deal of despondency and questions about philanthropy and how it can link to education. Yet, for most in the philanthropy space, this is a social-justice issue. They are concerned about equity and the need for quality education as a human right for all. They realise that this takes time, but every effort shifts the goalposts, even if slightly.

The range of interventions in education is extensive in scope. As a start, there are philanthropic foundations deeply involved in early childhood development projects where early learning can have a major impact on educational success as the child grows older, which, in turn, according to Save the Children “can disrupt intergenerational cycles of poverty”.

While the role of parents is critical in early child development, ECD centres can contribute enormously to cognitive and oral language skills, the use of play in both social and skills development, improved nutrition and the role of play in developing motor skills. For philanthropy, building a strong base at an early stage to ensure further success in school is a good reason for investing philanthropic funds at this level.

At primary and secondary schools there are foundations creating infrastructure such as the building of whole schools, or the provision of libraries and other facilities. This often results in the development of partnerships with other philanthropic entities that might focus on school feeding, the provision of psycho-social support, transport or other school requirements. At the same time, we are seeing philanthropy involved in enhancing school management; strengthening teaching skills, particularly in English and mathematics; creating safe playgrounds to keep crime out of the school; and providing bursaries for talented children.

At the higher-education level, philanthropy is involved with projects relating to access to university; to academic development programmes to ensure throughput; preparation for the world of work; the provision of equipment and contributions to various facilities and programmes; the endowment of departmental chairs; and huge levels of investment in bursaries. There is always something of interest for philanthropy in the higher education space as the offerings are so broad.

Whatever the focus of a philanthropic foundation, there is sure to be a project or programme that would fit that focus. These include environmental research; cutting edge medicine; maths and science education; arts, music and culture; specific centres focusing on anything from the state of our cities to good governance to advances in artificial intelligence and to connecting across the African continent.

For example, UCT seeks funds for, among other priorities, the Nelson Mandela Memorial and School of Public Governance that helps to build the next generation of government officials with a focus on ethics, constitutionalism, accountability and transparency; the Children’s Institute that undertakes policy research relating to children’s rights; and the African Climate and Development Initiative which explores “the challenge of climate change in the context of sustainable development in Africa” and is building a new cohort of African researchers and practitioners in the field.

Our business schools are rated some of the best in the world and philanthropy has played a role in both their establishment and continued programmes. For example, the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria was funded by philanthropist Donny Gordon; at the UCT Graduate School of Business we find the Bertha Centre for Social Entrepreneurship funded by the Bertha Foundation; the Allan Gray School of Leadership; and the Raymond Ackerman Academy.

Teaching hospitals are other institutions linked to higher education that run a large number of research projects while providing health services for the public. The Children’s Hospital Trust is the fundraising arm of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and again there are numerous opportunities for donors interested in paediatric health or child welfare; Groote Schuur has now also established a Trust and no doubt will have its own priorities that require support.

Opportunities for giving in the education sector are enormous and this can include non-profit organisations that provide educational support such as, inter alia, the Learning Trust that is involved in After School activities; Equal Education that focuses on advocacy and policy issues pertaining to education; BRIDGE which facilitates collaboration among various stakeholders in the education system to ensure that work is coordinated to improve the quality of teaching and learning; Read Educational Trust that is involved in upskilling teachers, literacy training and providing resources to schools; and the LEAP schools that provide no-cost education to learners from disadvantaged communities but have physics, mathematics and English as compulsory subjects.

South Africa has a wealth of organisations that are involved in the education space and philanthropy recognises that until we fix education, most progress is hindered.

We may then ask, what about all the other issues such as child welfare, animal welfare, xenophobia, violence against women, Covid-19, job creation, environmental justice and climate change? That is always the conundrum as philanthropic funding is finite and cannot compete with the huge resources available to the corporate and government sectors.

However, it can seed projects and provide leverage to ensure that other sources of support are made available where needed. 

Overall, it is becoming increasingly important to grow the South African philanthropic movement, especially at this time when we need solidarity and social investment. DM



Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

Every seed of hope will one day sprout.

South African citizens throughout the country are standing up for our human rights. Stay informed, connected and inspired by our weekly FREE Maverick Citizen newsletter.