Generation generosity

‘South Africans are very charitable people, whatever their religion. Individuals who give don’t do it just to fill in tick boxes,” says Imtiaz Sooliman, founding chairman of Gift of the Givers.

The head of Africa’s largest disaster response NGO should know: the past three years, he says, have been the busiest ever for his organisation, despite the global financial meltdown. Staff numbers have grown from two to more than 40, the vehicle fl eet from two to 16 cars.

“Giving is huge. Every day we get donations pouring in,” he says. “My outfit is growing phenomenally, against the general trend of businesses closing down.”

Gift of the Givers, based in KwaZulu-Natal, does not advertise or solicit funding. “We don’t go looking for money, but it still comes in all the time. “People feel a real need to give, in both money and time. We announce our projects and donors come to us because of our impeccable track record,” Sooliman says.

Since its launch in 1992, the NGO has distributed more than R400-million worth of aid in 27 countries, including South Africa. It mainly provides humanitarian assistance in disaster zones, but also supports a diverse range of local development projects.

Another outfit that has bloomed in spite of the recession is The Giving Organisation, an independent trust that raises funds for good-cause organisations. In recent years it has raised more than R49-million for beneficiaries, including the Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa (Choc), Red Cross, Reach for a Dream, World Wide Fund for Nature, Cansa and The African Children’s Feeding Scheme.

In response to dwindling funding from the state, the lottery and corporate South Africa, good-cause organisations have had to find innovative ways of raising funds, says advocate Dawie Crous, a founding trustee of The Giving Organisation. Charities that used to compete with each other pool resources and brainpower in the trust, and they share the funds it raises equally.

“The way to raise money is in a low-key manner in the background. If there is a hint of self-interest, people can get turned off ,” he says. Crous agrees that South Africans in general are good givers. “As individuals they are very generous. My experience is that those who are struggling themselves are the best givers.”

What inspired people like Sooliman and Crous to take up the giving cause?

Sooliman says his role model was his grandfather, who ran a shop in Potchefstroom and was lenient with customers who could not afford to pay their accounts. “Giving was part of our culture. My mother also led by example, showing us it’s important to go out and find people in need,” he says.

In 1991 he met a spiritual leader in Istanbul who taught him the best way he could help people was to set up an organisation. “I am a disciple of a Sufi teacher who has given me the gift of what I do.” He is fostering the giving culture among his five children, who are studying professions and will eventually join Gift of the Givers. “You have to have giving in your blood and in your upbringing,” Sooliman says.

Crous got involved after he donated one of his kidneys to his brother and came into contact with Choc. Part of the Cardies dynasty, he started helping by making greeting cards to raise money for Choc through royalties. He is now a social entrepreneur on the look-out for creative ways of funding giving.

Samson Nkosi, corporate social investment (CSI) specialist for Absa bank in Mpumalanga, is driven by the chance to make a difference in society, even if it is in a small way Nkosi hit the giving trail when he started raising funds for youth development projects. He went on to work for the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and now, at 30, is the youngest person involved in CSI at Absa.

“The humble efforts of ordinary people make you realise how fortunate you are,” he says. “I may get a hand-written plea from a community in a rural area, for instance, and I can go to my board and infl uence them to help.”

Givers working in the CSI sector are energetic, dedicated people who are able to straddle the vastly different worlds of poor communities and companies, he adds. “You have to do a lot of convincing. As soon as a company struggles, it wants to cut down on social investment.

“On the other hand, the needs of communities can be overwhelming. You need to make yourself accessible, to drive around to the people in need and constantly to monitor how projects are progressing.”

In reaction to the global financial meltdown, NGOs are focusing on financial sustainability and generating their own income rather than relying on donor funding, Nkosi says. Other new trends include community organisations setting up formal business structures with shareholders, and consolidating resources with other organisations in order to cut costs.

“CSI has become a professional sector and corporate donors are more demanding than they used to be,” he says. “Still, I only see growth in giving in the future.”

Barbara Kenyon, founder of rape survivor support organisation Grip (Greater Nelspruit
Rape Intervention Programme), started giving “because I have had such a good life and I wanted to leave a legacy”. Initially she planned to be involved on a voluntary basis two or three days a week.

“But once you get to know the scale of the need, morally you can’t turn your back on it,” she says. Kenyon was chief executive officer of Grip at a time when anti-retrovirals were prohibited by the Mpumalanga government. “With rape, you can’t change what has happened, but you can do something about what happens afterwards,” she says.

She ran Grip for seven years, but it came at a personal cost and after burning out she left to become director of the Nataise Lowveld Trust, which provides rural women with training and support in early childhood development. “Every little bit of giving makes a big difference to the people who need it most,” Kenyon says. “It is a two-way thing — the giver gets a lot out of it too.”

Former FirstRand CEO Paul Harris started the banking group’s award-winning volunteers programme with the recognition that many individuals want to make a contribution to a better society. “There are so many little things that can be done, like taking elderly people to the movies on a Saturday or recycling uniforms at schools,” he says.

He set an example by taking a taxi to Jeppe Hostel and sitting down with the hostel dwellers over a few beers to find out what their lives were like. He then went to a shebeen, stayed over in Soweto and joined the morning train commuters to get to work. “The expedition was one of the highlights of my life,” he says.

He used the experience to inspire his employees to “get up and do things instead of whingeing. “They always enjoy it — I have had 50 year-old white guys coming into my office to express their gratitude to me for getting them involved in giving.”

Fiona Macleod’s articles were made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa’s Media Fellowship Programme

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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