It is always useful, and a bit of relief, to stop for a moment (such as at Autumn Academy) and give ourselves time to think – to think about the role and relevance of the non-profit sector, globally but also specifically in South Africa, and specifically with regard to our own organisations.

In this closing plenary we want to focus on the role and relevance of the non-profit sector. It seems we are in a bit of a bind as a sector? Big organisations which are part of our civil society landscape are currently taking considerable strain with the shifts in the funding terrain, while at the same time the need for the huge range of work done, services delivered, and social change effected by civil society organisations, is growing exponentially.

Funding civil society

Civil society is as broad and diverse as its funding needs are deep. Now not all forms of organizing require funding, and most certainly not all causes initiated by citizens should be funded. But for social change and development organisations to be effective in achieving their aims and delivering their services, they almost always require funding support to do this. Which starts to draw the really fundamental link between non-profit organisations and philanthropic funding – where both are points on a social change and social development trajectory, as partners in development. The role of non-profits organisations is absolutely fundamental in ensuring and securing a positive and progressive social development agenda. So too is the role of private funding – from individuals and from Trusts and Foundations and from CSI. I will leave some of the discussion around state funding of non-profits to Shelagh Gastrow (click here for link to article).

Social change

Citizen engagement and civic action take place more and more frequently through the formal structures of non-profit organisations. For better or worse, NPOs in South Africa are currently the key vehicle not only for systemic change, but for fundamental service delivery. In addition, non-profits serve as the vehicle through which philanthropy agendas are served.

If we are to examine deeply the potential of the philanthropy/ organizational partnership to effect social change then we want to be posing at least the following questions:

•   What is the social/developmental change we are looking for?
•   What is the social change agenda?
•   Who sets this agenda?
•   Is there potential for a shared social change agenda?
•   Who should these partnerships be between?
•   What is the role of citizens, government, business and philanthropy in shaping policy and in pro-poor advocacy?
•   What is the role of philanthropy in achieving this?

The philanthropic acts of giving and receiving usually imply an unequal power relationship, whether the giving/receiving takes places between individuals, between entities and a community, or between countries. In a global context where inequality has increased enormously during the last three decades, both within and between countries, these considerations have to be consciously borne in mind when discussing and practising philanthropy and funding, and when looking at partnerships in effecting social development.

This funding dynamic is important for us – as non-profit organisations – to bear in mind. As formal organisational structures, we are able to give effect to the FUNDER agenda! We are the structures that ensure that funders, foundations, trusts, and CSI units are able to achieve their goals. This provides us with the platform to disrupt the begging bowl frame of fundraising quite fundamentally. Non-profits are so key to the funding agenda and to what private philanthropy seeks to achieve, that it begs the question:

Are donors perhaps the real beneficiaries, benefiting directly from the work done by non-profits?

Service delivery vs Social change

That said, the majority of non-profit organisations in South Africa are service delivery and welfare organisations. In an unequal society on the scale of South Africa, there is little room for – or interest in – non-profit work that is not directly “welfare” and where individual “beneficiaries” can’t necessarily be identified. Our sector is largely focused on servicing the very real basic needs in communities – food, water, housing, health and basic education. This leaves little room for the other side of civil society organisation – the absolutely critical work done to ensure the protection of human rights and access to justice; for social innovation, for Advocacy and policy development, for Research, and for ensuring that those elected to govern our young democracy are held fully to account.

I am not going to go into detail here about the arguments for and against private philanthropy. Suffice to say that it has been widely argued that the philanthropic and development sectors tend to be shaped by the needs of wealthy individuals rather than the community as a whole. Some argue that since private donations are tax-deductible they have the effect not only of the private allocation of social private expenditures, but also of decreased public revenues. And this is without the benefit of any public decision-making processes, leading to a situation where the rich are able to exercise control over apparently “private” resources, while the poor become dependent on charity.

Witness the recent 2010 gathering of what I call the Philanthropy 10 – a gathering of the wealthiest individuals in the USA to decide on how to effect the power of their philanthropic resources (Gates, Buffet, Broad, Winfrey, Bloomberg, Rockefeller). Committed to giving away vast percentages of their personal wealth, this highlights the increased role of private and often exclusionary decision-making on the allocation of such resources and on the development or social change agendas being driven by private wealth. More importantly, it highlights the role of non-profits in ensuring that the social development and social change work that we do is not a one-way process of effecting a funding agenda, but that we are integrally involved in influencing the funding agenda and the kind of change that is being effected with these resources.

The increasing pressure on NGOs to professionalise and to become more business-like has often given rise to the alienation of community constituencies with a growing divide opening between well-resourced (and often urban-based) non-profits involved in service delivery and the myriad community-based organisations working directly in communities to cope with poverty and disease.

Were non-profits to adopt (or return to) a more actively transformation role, such as holding governments to account on a range of issues, including growing poverty and inequality, how would this fit with donor agendas?

A rights-based approach to development

As non-profits and as part of civil society, we have a central role to play in shaping what we are, and what we become, and in shaping the organisation/funder relationship whether that funder is government, business or individual.

To avoid the non-profit sector being reduced to one focused only on the delivery of basic services requires the pursuit of a new kind of philanthropy in South Africa, one that includes the elements of a rights-based or social justice approach to development. It is part of our role, as non-profits working for social change and development, to encourage the pursuit – through HOW we work – of a new kind of grantmaking.

In the future, we need to engage more directly with the government and with political processes (in both cooperative and adversarial capacities), promote the creation of more public accountability and support the strengthening of civil society organisations to guide or lead the crucial processes of advocacy and citizen action, needed to claim the rights and entitlements enshrined in the constitution. A strong democracy depends on a strong, active and independent civil society. The challenges facing our society are formidable – so it remains absolutely critical that as non-profits and civil society actors, we work to find solutions for many of these challenges to ensure social change and development.