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2017 Conference Highlights: Community Philanthropy

AGAG 2017 Conference – “Africa Philanthropy in the 21st Century:  Achieving Impact Through Building Community”

The AGAG 2017 Conference session on “The Role of Community Philanthropy in Advancing Africa’s Development Agenda” explored how organizations are leveraging resources in their communities to make a difference.

Questions raised included the unrecognized role of African organizations and the power dynamics that frame how the capacity of local and international NGOs are viewed.

Key points made included the future of philanthropy begins locally and grows through methods such as crowdsourcing. The traditional view of philanthropy as the arena for rich people and foundations is no longer the case. Community philanthropy helps to build positive interdependence because communities establish their priorities and contribute their resources. In advancing Africa’s development agenda, the balance of international and local funding isn’t about the math, but about strategic partnerships that drive collective action. 

The following are highlights from the session. 

Vuyiswa Sidzumo, Director of the C.S. Mott Foundation South Africa office, moderated the session. Speakers were Irungu Houghton, Board Chair of the Kilimani Project Foundation (Kenya),
Sibongile Mkhabela, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust (NMCHT) (South Africa) and Bhekinkosi Moyo, CEO of Southern Africa Trust (South Africa).

Sidzumo squaredThe unrecognized role of African organizations

Vuyiswa Sidzumo set the context in her opening remarks. “Often, discussions about the capacity challenges of Africa focus on justifying the work of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) that operate as intermediaries in distributing funds to African organizations,” she said. “[Meanwhile], African organizations playing that role—whether one calls it an intermediary, community grantmaker, or just a regular Africa grantmaker—goes unrecognized.”

She cited two recent reports that highlight the imbalance in resources for local organizations. The AGAG-commissioned report on U. S. Foundation Funding for Africa reveals that most of the $1.5 billion in funding targeting Africa in 2012 went to organizations based outside of Africa. The 2015 CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report notes the same pattern in global development assistance: “Despite all the promises about ‘funding the front line’ and investing in the capacity of Southern civil society, very little resources reach those who need it most and, arguably, could spend it best.” (Executive Summary, p2)

Encouraging the audience to think of ways to improve and to partner with African organizations, she pointed to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, one of the biggest grantmakers in South Africa and its success in building the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. “This is one billion-rand project (about $75 million USD) that demonstrates that local organizations have the capacity to manage large-scale projects: so why are we still talking about capacity? she asked.

Houghton squaredLesson from the Kilimani Project Foundation

Irungu Houghton shared about his journey in the civil society sector, working in Kenya on democracy and human rights issues, and with INGOs like ActionAid and Oxfam. He is currently board chair of the Kilimani Project Foundation, a community foundation in Kilimani, a middle-class suburb of Nairobi. In addition to building assets to make grants, the Foundation works with the community to address noise pollution, build school protection programs, and monitor adherence to local regulations.

He gave examples of the different ways the community wants to support the Foundation aside from giving money.  One person volunteered to pay for legal assistance when community protesters are arrested. Another donated trees to improve public spaces if the Foundation would agree to plant them and establish a system to take care of them. But despite this high level of support, taking advantage of these offers remains an issue. According to Houghton, the Foundation lacks the structures needed to absorb these different types of public support.

“Wealth generated from African communities — i.e. community foundations collectively — is the future for Africa,” he said. The locus of change for the continent is in the urban areas that are over-concentrated with widespread inequity.”

Ways to Improve

Given current trends in aid and philanthropy, coupled with rapid change across the continent, Houghton suggests that:

  • Governance work must be rooted in the local context and among local constituencies with an eye toward systemic change.
  • Education, health care, infrastructure, and water are public goods and form a contract between citizens and their governments that cannot be “farmed out” to philanthropic organizations or foreign governments. When foreign funders support public goods, it can create a situation where local governments are not held accountable for their responsibility to their citizens.
  • We must reorient our organizations to be context responsive and not donor responsive. The resources we need are within our communities, and communities respond when we do what is important to them.

Bongi_Mkhabela squaredUnderstanding What is Possible 

Sibongile Mkhabela described the ten-year journey of the Children’s Fund to open the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg that is the Children; Fund flagship projects. She proudly shares that it was accomplished with 60% of the funds coming from the community in South Africa. “We brought in all types of institutions as partners and advocates. We tapped into the top people in every sector to help us raise funds and to monitor our progress. We continue to build that network. We wanted to demonstrate the capacity of NGOs to transform society, so we set out to build a state-of-the-art children’s hospital,” she said.

In many ways, the work of the Children’s Fund and the Children’s Hospital exemplifies the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. Mkhabela describes her vision of success: “Twenty years down the line if you ask me how successful we have been, it will not be measured by how many children we served but how many nurses and specialists we trained, and how we transformed health care in southern Africa – those are the measurements for the NMCH.”

The vision of the Children’s Fund is to change the way society treats children. It also works to strengthen community-based organizations and community assets. Mkhabela characterized its current institutional capacity as comprised of strategic and layered partnerships with a range of organizations. They include government, community-based organizations, academic and research institutions, and the private sector. “We are a small organization so we can only pilot projects.  We need government and work with them from the beginning so they can see the successes and the failures. There is an understanding that they will scale it [up or down] when we are done.”

Thinking about sustainability 20-30 years into the future has always been a big part of Mkhabela’s role as CEO. She referred to slides depicting current and ideal funding scenarios, noting that “how far we are from sustainability is a constant measurement for me.  Right now, most of our funding comes from our investments.”

Strategic Collective Positioning

Mkhabela also underscored the importance of “strategic collective positioning” and the interaction between organizations trying to achieve the same results. She gave the example of an INGO that wants to work in a specific village but lacks the competency to do so effectively. The local organization that works in that village spends time building the capacity of the INGO. The village may not be the right place for the INGO, but understanding the layered and strategic nature of the collective response makes it easier to know where and at what level the INGO should be placed. “If we are clear that we are looking for social justice, how we organize ourselves is dependent on what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it,” she noted.

Reflecting on a previous discussion, Mkhabela asked if there was a shared understanding of the term, “grassroots.” She noted that, while the Children’s Fund might be regarded as grassroots to some American organizations, others might use the term when referring to working at the level of a specific community project. This is an important conversation, but it is also important to ask who we are talking about when we use the term grass root. Who is your grassroots? We can’t sit at a global level and pretend we are talking about the same thing in the same way.”

Moyo squaredChallenging Views of Community and Local Capacity

Bhekinkosi Moyo began his remarks by reflecting on Houghton and Mkhabela’s presentations. To Moyo, they were examples of philanthropy defined not as giving but as sharing, and where the community is part of the solution and not merely recipients. He pointed out that both examples not only demonstrate the energy and trust that drive the work of communities but also the fact that philanthropy’s current templates and tools fail to capture this.

Challenging our understanding of “community,” Moyo suggested that in talking about community philanthropy we think about poor and marginalized communities, and not middle-income or rich communities. The concept of community can also be framed by geography or interests that cross boundaries. “We should be able to define philanthropy at different social structures without reducing it to the lower social structures—which is what we often do.” 

He also addressed the “capacity challenge in Africa,” raised by Sidzumo in her opening remarks. In his experience heading the Southern Africa Trust, Moyo sees how “capacity is often about the politics of development.” He cautioned funders against losing sight of what they are trying to achieve when we get stuck on templates and requirements. He shared the story of a group funded by the Trust to organize mine workers. Though successful, they were in jeopardy of losing support because they had not produced a report. “We want them to organize for social justice,” he said, “not turn them into report writers. We found another way to get the information we needed.”  

Moyo also discussed capacity, sustainability, and the role of INGOs. He noted that INGOs often contract out the very same services to local NGOs that local NGOs are wrongly viewed as lacking. Moyo shared his experience at the Trust. The Trust has fund management expertise, and it is exploring offering that service as part of its sustainability strategy, despite discouragement from donors. “Donors invest in INGOs to do fund management, so they should also invest in local NGOs who have that capacity,” Moyo said. 

For more information read our Update with resources to help you learn more about community philanthropy in Africa.