KZN Disaster Highlights Importance Of NPOs, Writes Shaun Samuels

The social and humanitarian crisis, where nearly 4 000 homes have been destroyed and 448 lives claimed by the floods in KwaZulu Natal, is not only one of the deadliest natural disasters of our time but is an opportune moment for non-profit organisations (NPOs) to reflect on whether or not they are adequately geared up to support communities on the ground.

From the immediate and pressing needs of salvaging the remains of their loved ones and belongings to co-creating sustainable solutions to the long-term development needs of the affected communities.  

Deeping poverty and inequality, disruptions to economic output, loss of employment due to Covid-19 have all contributed to a bleak outlook for long-term recovery and development. 

But if there is one sector that must be in it for the long haul, it is the NPO sector? 

A more inclusive, integrated and community-led approach is critical not only to ensure more effective rebuilding efforts, but to realise a more sustainable and meaningful impact on the most vulnerable communities. 

This brings to the fore a lesser-known way of facilitating local giving and unlocking grassroots development known as “community foundation”.

In short, a community foundation is a place-based organisation that seeks to deepen local giving by helping grassroots communities unlock assets and lead their own development. 

They are characterised by their unique and first-hand knowledge of local nuances and having earned the trust of the community, which is critical to ensuring that there is community participation and ownership towards solving social challenges. 

Whilst traditional philanthropy comes with well-meaning intentions, its impact is sometimes limited as it operates on a top-down approach to giving and does not give communities a sense of owning and driving their own development. 

Once the state of disaster ends and the funding dries up, communities are still faced with the same challenges.

Community philanthropy on the other hand compels communities to approach development with another perspective that says: “How can we use the resources that we do have, to unlock more resources to solve our challenges?” 

These resources are not limited to financial resources from local savings clubs or stokvels, but also encompass critical non-financial assets such as skills, time, local knowledge, volunteering, communal land, networks, and community trust. 

Community philanthropy recognises that without local resources to enable communities to own and drive solutions to their challenges, most community upliftment efforts will eventually die out.

In most instances, community stakeholders understand local dynamics and contextual nuances on the ground, better than national or global role players. 

These dynamics may include cultural sensitivities and complexities which are often unknown or overlooked by ‘global experts’ and large-scale institutions, equipped with best-practice approaches but which may not be relevant for every community on the ground. 

There is no doubt that macro-level players such as government, big business and large philanthropic organisations such as the Red Cross Foundation and the Gift of the Givers for example are critical for emergencies and humanitarian crises. 

Their ability to deploy large-scale resources at short notice cannot be refuted or matched. On the contrary, their responses are indispensable and appreciated. 

However, over the medium to long-term, macro-level top-down responses of large institutions sometimes become too broad to see the micro-level nuances. 

They monitor and measure the number of people reached, but may not be close enough to measure quality. 

This is where community-based, community-led institutions which facilitate horizontal giving need to step up.

The Westernisation of philanthropy has conditioned us to view giving as a top-down practice where the rich give to the poor and destitute. 

Giving becomes the privilege of high net-worth individuals and established organisations with deep pockets given through highly formalised structures. 

Community philanthropy or “local giving” as it’s often called in the African context is critical to local development as it uses what already exists as opposed to depending exclusively only on what comes from outside. 

African philanthropy, however, operates on the premise that giving happens where individuals and communities live amongst each other, even if just the little that they have. 

This notion is broadly known as ubuntu. Community foundations operate at the intersection of horizontal and vertical giving. 

They bring together the best of both worlds by marrying the macro and the micro-level responses to ensure that community upliftment efforts are sustainable.

In conclusion, it is not about downplaying one form of philanthropy in favour of the other but finding an all-inclusive solution to giving and development. 

It is about recognising that the macro and the micro-level responses each have an essential and complementary role to play. 

However, we must shift power back to the communities to ensure sustainable rebuilding and development solutions, co-created and owned by the community.

*About the author: Shaun Samuels is a development and management consultant. He is the founder and Managing Director at SGS Consulting, a social enterprise that has provided advisory, technical support, organisational strategy, programme development in the areas of community development, philanthropy, education, constitutionalism and HIV/AIDS to organisations at grassroots level right up to the United Nations.

*The views expressed by the author of this article are not necessarily those of The Bulrushes