Rising above the five star bubble: Albie Sachs ends EFC conference on a high note


Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

Well, seven stars in Rome, I’m told … Going to a philanthropy conference tends to feel like being in a five-star bubble hovering way above people’s everyday lives discussing important issues of poverty and exclusion. In the case of the EFC, conferences have been held in a wide range of beautiful and historic cities – Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm, Istanbul, to name just a few.

Belfast is historic too, but its immediate history is what is most present and it’s not obviously beautiful, especially not in the persistent rain that we experienced last week. It’s traditional to show a film in an opening plenary but the one shown this year was not typical: it didn’t show beautiful buildings, stunning tourist attractions and world-class restaurants but 35 years of communal conflict and violence. In Belfast the conference felt grounded – we were in a city with a turbulent recent history, which has found its way into a new era of peace, a transition in which a select group of foundations have played their part.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the opening plenary featured community activists rather than local dignitaries, while the so-called thematic events on the first evening introduced us to NGOs and community groups working in Belfast. The closing plenary ended the conference on a truly inspiring note.

JRCT wins Raymond Georis Prize

First of all, the Raymond Georis Prize for Innovative Philanthropy in Europe went to Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. As Jane Francis of the Mercator Fund outlined the achievements of the yet-to-be-announced winner, I whispered to my neighbour ‘I hope this is going to be JRCT’. And it was – who else could it have been! The first Raymond Georis Prize went to Avila Kilmurray of Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI). At this conference in Belfast, the prize went to JRCT, which is of course one of the ‘select group of foundations’ that has supported the work of CFNI and others in Northern Ireland over the past decades.

That word ‘decades’ is crucial: to support social change effectively, foundations must be prepared to fund for the long haul without any promise of ultimate success – a point that was made repeatedly throughout the conference. JRCT has played a unique role in helping to end the conflicts in Northern Ireland and most recently in the Basque country, as described in the June issue of Alliance. In supporting the work of independent mediator Brian Currin, JRCT stood alone, receiving hate mail and facing opposition from Spanish and French governments. Their support for the High Pay Commission is also described in the December 2011 issue of Alliance. I have become aware more recently of the extent of their support for environmental/climate change issues and, most surprisingly, of their support for the UK’s developing social stock exchange through their MRI programme – I never knew they had one!

Receiving the prize, trust secretary Stephen Pittam, sadly retiring this year, spoke of JRCT’s willingness to take on contentious issues, to champion the marginalized and demonized, to challenge governments – all to meet their mission to promote peace and justice. The prize was a fitting recognition of all JRCT has done under Stephen’s leadership and before.

Albie Sachs calls for soft vengeance …

Justice Albie Sachs started with the story of how he came round after a car bombing by South African security services in 1988, and his joy at discovering he was alive, having lost only an arm. This is the moment every freedom fighter waits for, he said: the sense of elation at having survived. We don’t want vengeance, he said. ‘Do we want to cut people’s arms off? If we achieve democracy and the rule of law, that will be my vengeance, roses and lilies will grow out of my arm.’ The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter is the title of the book he wrote chronicling his response to the experience. Charles Keidan lists Sachs’ call for ‘soft vengeance’ among his conference highlights.

If Albie Sachs had done nothing but than tell his own story, we would all have gone away happy. His is an inspiring story and he is a great storyteller, and it’s not often delegates at a philanthropy conference get to hear this sort of thing. There was a lot of talk about foundations and risk throughout the conference. Hearing Sachs talk put this into perspective. Coming to England in 1966 after a period of solitary confinement and sleep deprivation, he described the ‘wonderful feeling that they aren’t going to come for me tonight’. That’s real risk!

But he didn’t just tell his story. He also wove into it his observations on philanthropy. He might have started out a sceptic, but his experiences over the years have convinced him of its value. JRCT’s support for his doctorate in 1966 was the ‘first dent in his hostility to philanthropy’.

He also received philanthropic support for a prosthesis to replace his lost arm. But he hated it and abandoned the struggle to get used to it after a couple of months. Sometimes, he said, if people are helping you on the basis of an assumption about what is right and what’s needed, it won’t work. Was this a waste of money? No, his experience helped him come to an understanding of what had happened to him. He then began working on drafting a new democratic constitution for South Africa. ‘That healed me; the arm didn’t.’

‘You give what you’ve got to give. That makes everyone equal,’ he said of giving in general and of the relationship between philanthropy and beneficiary in particular.  The building of the Constitutional Court in South Africa was funded by a group of five US foundations – Ford, Kellogg, Mott, Rockefeller and Carnegie. ‘People lack beauty, they lack hope. They need justice, hope, dignity. It’s important that a public building should be smiling and open and represent a new South Africa. We received this money with joy – not gratitude.’

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