Many people associate the term ‘philanthropy’ with rich families like the Rockefellers and Bill and Melinda Gates, or our own Oppenheimers and Ruperts. Big donations, splendid fundraising events or campaigns like the Giving Pledge (which gets billionaires to donate a proportion of their fortune during their lifetime) are seen as the essence of philanthropy.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this type of giving, and it should be encouraged and applauded at all times. However, the ancient Greek meaning of philanthropy has a wider interpretation that includes all activities associated with the spiritual love of your fellow human beings. Philanthropy is also the literal translation of the nguni word ‘ubuntu’, which means ‘love humanity’. Ubuntu and philanthropy have a lot in common since the motivation for both arises from a natural desire to help your fellow citizens, especially those who are less fortunate than you.
It is therefore unfortunate that philanthropy has come to refer mainly to large donations from wealthy patrons, when in truth everybody can find ways of being philanthropic. No matter how little one has to give, the rewards for both giver and receiver can be enormous. I’ve always liked the theme of the movie Pay It Forward, which promotes the idea that if somebody does you a good turn, you should do three good turns to others in exchange. If each person in the chain holds to the bargain, the exponential effect of 3, 9, 27, 81 … implies an enormous impact. Ubuntu goes nuclear!
The time-honoured practice of ‘tithing’ recommends giving away 10 percent of your income, and those who receive support from this source will no doubt testify to the value of such a lifeline. But for those who seek a deeper and richer experience, a 10 percent gift of time and talents, in lieu or in addition, can make sense. Opening the doors of opportunity through pro bono work can make just as much of a difference in other people’s lives as providing cash.
I myself am very happy to give my presentation on scenario planning for free at breakfasts to raise money for various causes. I also like facilitating sessions for NGOs looking for a strategic conversation about their future. My fee structure for the day is very flexible! It may not be much compared with what other people do, but it’s ‘my bit’ in terms of paying it forward and paying it back.
So my message is simple. Just as listening to Eric Clapton Unplugged is a more uplifting and energising experience than hearing him all but drowned-out by exotic arrangements and other musicians, philanthropy unplugged can do a whole lot more for the giver and receiver than the popularly understood version. Philanthropy unplugged only requires a commitment to give up some amount of time or money to a worthwhile cause. It starts with you. No-one is too poor to be a philanthropist.
- Clem Sunter studied at Winchester and New College, Oxford. He joined Anglo American in 1966, eventually heading up the Chairman’s Fund from 1996 to 2008. In 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Cape Town for his work in the field of scenario planning. Clem married Margaret Rowland in 1969 and they have three children.
- This article first appeared in The Giving Report 2010, published by the B.o.E Private Clients.