The sole constant of the past year has been uncertainty, impacting the plans and priorities of people, businesses, and charities worldwide. For those of us in philanthropy, it has been a time not just to take action, but also to reflect on our purpose, goals and impact in a new world.
As Chief Executive of a family foundation, I’ve found that amid the instability, it has been crucial to consider the unique role that we can play to advance progress on globally urgent issues. This is particularly true in the context of ever-growing emphasis on ESG at the highest levels of business and society, a tide of interest in impact investing, and a squeeze on public fundraising by charities resulting from the pandemic. How can philanthropists act in ways that public sector funding bodies, NGOs or impact investors can’t or won’t?
Firstly, we take bigger risks. Philanthropists have a reputation for innovation and risk, no doubt in part informed by the fact that many UHNWIs are self-made entrepreneurs for whom taking risk is a part of their DNA. We can act with less constraint: unlike most other types of funder, we can disregard conventional theory, and work free from short-term market cycles, allowing us to respond nimbly and creatively to need, taking a long-term approach where necessary. The world is more uncertain than it ever has been, but the relative flexibility of an independent foundation means that we can support causes that public bodies and business can’t or won’t, rewarding bold risk-takers, and encouraging them to adopt multidisciplinary approaches in search of the broadest possible impact. It is our responsibility to use this freedom to search out and fund ‘moonshots’ and high-risk high-reward initiatives.
Building from risk is the all-important notion of trust. As a foundation, we are committed to an ethos of practicing ‘charity for charity’s sake’ to empower our global partners: we recognise that mutual trust and a stable source of funding allow our partners to think bigger and bolder, to catalyse additional resources, and to focus most clearly on beneficiaries. By structuring grants in a way that enables maximum impact over the long term, and crucially, by specifying minimal reporting requirements, our partners can devote their efforts to their vital projects rather than being trapped in an endless cycle of measurement and reporting. Our partners tell us that such surpassing trust, even as it includes prudent points of control and report – mainly due diligence and common sense – allows them to do what they know how to do and still improve where needed.
Investing in people
Combining our appetite for risk and empowerment through trust-based giving, philanthropists must also commit to identifying and supporting outstanding individuals. The power wielded by an individual who has dedicated their life to improving the world, whether working in a grassroots context or as part of a larger organisation focused on global issues, cannot be underestimated. When philanthropic foundations utilise their insight, networks and autonomy to invest in people with potential, they can help change the course of entire communities.
Our work with Nomonde Siyaka, owner of Mzansi Restaurant in the township of Langa, Cape Town, demonstrates the confluence of these overarching principles: risk, trust and investing in people. Nomonde’s dream was small yet mighty: a bigger kitchen to teach others, in her township, how to prepare local food and, through food and warm hospitality, change the perception and the prospects of her neighbourhood. Nomonde’s enthusiasm and determination was such an inspiration, that we decided to back her.
Leveraging our network and a modest grant we approached Gastromotiva, a Brazilian NGO expert in food education. The key connection was a common vision – that it is possible to change the lives of young people and underprivileged communities through entrepreneurship and food education. A few months after our first meeting, the ‘Food for Change South Africa’ project was born. A year later, with an investment of $30,000, Nomonde had a brand new kitchen, a license, and 25 young students who had received professional training in food hospitality; the restaurant even caught the attention of Conde Nast South Africa. The long-term impact of this relatively modest investment underlines the power of placing trust in bold individual changemakers.
In an uncertain time, it is tempting to become more risk-averse and to look inwards, but the central role of philanthropy – charity for charity’s sake – resists this. In an uncertain world, those of us in the privileged position of working in philanthropy must embrace our purpose and autonomy, leaning into uncertainty and risk. By reasserting our commitment to empowering the entrepreneurs, risk takers and moonshot ideas that other organisations can’t or won’t support, we can fulfil our goal of creating long-term impact and helping to solve the world’s most pressing issues.
Cristiana Falcone (Lady) Sorrell is CEO of the JMCMRJ Sorrell Foundation.