Horizontal philanthropy – A right angle on community philanthropy

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa and Alan Fowler

With its focus on increasing philanthropy and social investment Alliance is one expression of a pervasive concern in international development with widening the array of resources available to fight poverty. But who is a philanthropist or a social investor? The natural tendency is to think of them at the top of a vertical relationship where richer give to poorer.

Yet assisting others facing similar conditions is widespread, especially when times are tough and hardship is high. What’s more, our research[1] suggests that this ‘horizontal’ philanthropy can help improve the practice and increase the effects of ‘vertical’ giving.

Horizontal philanthropy is a process in which people who are poor mobilize and share resources among themselves. Its transactions provide types of mutual support, but can also act as investment to improve conditions and future prospects. Local idioms illustrate the way this type of transaction is understood: ‘one hand washes the other’ (izandla ziyagezana) and ‘help so that you can be helped’ (Kwafa opo u ka kwafwe yoo).

We suggest that there are two forms of community philanthropy. First, philanthropy of community (PoC), that is, the ethos and practice of help that happens as part of the social fibre. Second, philanthropy for community (PfC) or that which happens to a community through external support and intervention of organized philanthropy and similar types of assistance. The community foundation (CF) concept is an obvious example.

Differences emerge …

Our study shows what PoC looks like in four Southern African countries – Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Contrast this with six basic assumptions or practices of the CF approach.

Asset base
CFs adopt an investment approach. Material goods, including money and fixed assets, are endowed as a basis to address the needs of a community in the long term. The assets involved in horizontal philanthropy, by contrast, are more diverse. Both material goods (money, food and clothes have a high premium) and non-material resources (eg advice, access to information and contacts, ideas, prayer, moral support, accommodation, transport) have their importance. Moreover, it is the fact of helping not its amount that is crucial. This is evident in the adage frequently used by the poor: ‘No matter how little, if you have you give.’

In PfC, the giver and receiver are generally unknown to each other. Staff of a CF act as the interface and intermediary. They can personalize the act of philanthropy but they are not philanthropists. In PoC, giver and receiver generally are known to one another and the quality of interaction is of a different order. In PoC, personal reputation is at stake, as is the potential for attaining trust and the ability to influence or effectively sanction decisions or behaviour. In PfC, the potential for recipient sanction on the intermediary is structurally limited.

Vertical help transactions are widely understood to be informed by charity, patronage, altruism and generosity. In contrast, horizontality among the poor is premised in a common condition and mutual survival and is informed not only by compassion and pity but also by the need for reciprocity. Put another way, vertical philanthropy is largely believed to be an act of personal choice, whereas horizontal philanthropy can also be seen as a social duty or obligation.

In vertical philanthropy, the notion of community is largely geographic. A community development approach tends to take geographic location and physical proximity as both the site and the cause of ‘community’. This is apparent in the CF model as it ‘seeks to improve the quality of life for all people in a defined geographic area’.[2] The names of CFs – Greater Rustenburg Foundation, Foundation for the Mid South, Community Foundation for Ireland – illustrate the point. In combination, a geography-plus-endowment approach assumes there is sufficient stability of ‘community’, of the people and local institutions that comprise it, to make long-term perspectives viable.

In contrast, the nature of horizontal help suggests that community needs to be seen as a combination of proximity and demand. Proximity has two elements. One is the physical closeness; the other is affinity and kinship. Demand can range from daily, immediate and small to infrequent, large and longer-term. Generally speaking, poor people tend to approach those who are physically close for the daily, small needs and those with a more personal bond such as family for the more infrequent, larger needs. This often means going further afield than the geographic community. Horizontal philanthropy is thus not limited by physical space. Its ‘community’ is more likely to be based on need and the ability to satisfy it.

Because vertical philanthropy is one-way in terms of asset flow, the moment for providing a ‘return’ on inputs might be a long way off, but a due date for achieving agreed outputs, typically within a project framework, is usually agreed. While this can also happen in horizontal philanthropy, it is just as likely that help will be returned when conditions demand it – the payment, for instance, of school fees for a relative’s orphaned children with an understanding of return much later should they become employed and able to reciprocate. The nature of affinity allows for open-ended fulfilment of obligation, together with a mutual understanding of the consequences of failure to do so.

Rules and expectations
Organized philanthropy is guided by legal conditions and predetermined sets of rules and expectations. For CFs, criteria for providing help are usually designed to conform to the law as well as a funder’s mission, conditions and intentions. Relations with recipients are formalized in written agreements. Compliance and mutual expectations are negotiated, but within a framework that is inevitably asymmetric in terms of power between the parties, as are the consequences in cases of inadequate performance.

Horizontal philanthropy also has its rules (though unwritten, these tend to be well understood) which inform how a transaction is instigated – a need is noticed or help is asked for – and the criteria to determine both eligibility of the actor and legitimacy of the need. A decision to assist is sealed (loosely) with an agreement or shared understanding of the conditions that apply. This can include the time frame and terms, for example, to pay back or not, in kind or with an agreed equivalent, with or without interest or something extra. Furthermore, when agreed rules are followed there is an implicit reward – enhanced reputation and qualification to be helped again. When the rules are broken, sanctions apply – typically one is ‘corrected’ and/or not helped again.

Significance for community foundations

So what is the significance of horizontal philanthropy for vertical philanthropy? In the case of CFs, horizontality can help test two fundamental assumptions that underpin the worldwide movement.

First, relevance of the CF concept. There is a belief that: ‘The adaptability of the [CF] concept makes it possible for each country and area to mold its community foundation to fit its unique circumstances’.[3] Second, least harm is assumed. That is, the long-term availability of external resources, for example through an endowment, will not create community dependency or displace community resources (eg from PoC) to other purposes.

How can a horizontal view of the philanthropic impulse and act help to test these assumptions? Horizontality allows us to check what is happening below the formal associational level and provides a picture of semi-formal and informal groupings, neighbourhoods, households and individuals as actors and as relevant sites of philanthropy. We can compare the universal principles and values informing CFs with those operating in a given locality as a ‘way of life’. Are they aligned or in conflict? Having examined the ‘relevance assumption’ in this way, CFs can adjust themselves in order to enhance their local credibility, legitimacy and effectiveness.

The ‘do least harm assumption’ can be tested by developing a horizontal baseline. A record of the local ethos, expressions and rules of help existing among the poor can be a means for CFs and their funders to monitor and measure the impact of a CF on what already exists, whether it augments or undermines it. Such concerns merit consideration if the overall objective of PfC is to promote community philanthropy.

Summing up

The concept of horizontal philanthropy offers a different way of looking at the assumptions and concepts that underlie the general understanding of organized philanthropy. Crucially, it offers a means of understanding ‘community’ from the perspective of horizontal help and its proper place in development thinking and practice.

However, in moving forward, we need to be careful to avoid romanticizing and further taxing the poor in the name of local resource mobilization for poverty reduction. The idea is not to increase the burden on the poor nor to exploit their existing systems and strategies of help. Rather it is to see what we can learn from what works organically and what is consistent with the values and norms of the communities involved.

1 This analysis is based on an understanding of PoC emerging from the Building Community Philanthropy project (BCP). This exploratory inquiry is being conducted by the Centre for Leadership and Public Values (CLPV), Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, South Africa. It is funded by the Ford Foundation. Insights about PfC draw on both the conventional wisdom about vertical philanthropy and the CF concept presented by the Worldwide Initiative for Grantmaker Support (WINGS).

2 Eleanor Sacks (2004) Community Foundation Global Status Report, p6. See http://www.wingsweb.org

3 Sacks (2004) p6.

Susan Wilkinson-Maposa is Director of the BCP project. She can be contacted at susanwil@gsb.uct.ac.za

Alan Fowler is an adviser to the BCP project. He can be contacted at ALANFOWLER@compuserve.com

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