John Ulanga—A vision of vibrant philanthropy for East Africa

“I believe the increased urbanisation happening in our continent, coupled with the growing middle class and the emerging elite, presents a good opportunity for the new form of philanthropy that can leverage corporate capabilities.” 

photo courtesy The Foundation for Civil Society

John Ulanga is executive director of the Foundation for Civil Society since late 2005, and currently sits on the WINGS Board of Directors. He is the former Chairman of the East African Association of Grantmakers (EAAG) and continues to serve on its board. The Association envisions an East Africa with vibrant and organised philanthropy promoting sustainable development and social justice. The EAAG’s 2013 East Africa Philanthropy Conference was designed to explore local innovative strategies developed to link social investment with social impact. Here Ulanga shares his unique perspective on the event and reflects on the changing philanthropic landscape in Africa.

WINGS: Many East African philanthropists have emerged, bringing with them new modes of the practice. The effects have been widespread in the economic, social and political spheres. How has this and other developments changed the East African philanthropic environment in recent years?

John Ulanga: Before the establishment of the East African Association of Grantmakers, there was no any body that brought together philanthropic institutions for the purpose of sharing information, learning and advocacy around common issues. The creation of EAAG has provided the much needed platform that has brought together Foundations, Trusts and other philanthropy support institutions in East Africa. This has increased learning on issues related to philanthropy in East Africa. It has also increased visibility on the sector in the region and its interaction with other sectors. EAAG has also enabled its members to work together to start addressing the tax environment to make it more enabling for philanthropy in East Africa whereby some successes have already been recorded in Kenya and efforts will be done to emulate the same in the other East African countries.

WINGS: Regarding “the place of business in philanthropy” and “the place of philanthropy in businesses”, what roles do/can philanthropists and impact investors play in their efforts to alleviate poverty and bring about sustainable social change? What will create the shift from the traditional forms of philanthropy involving charitable contributions towards more strategic forms of philanthropy that leverage on unique corporate capabilities?

JU: Philanthropists and impact investors can and do play important roles in alleviating poverty and bringing about sustainable social change. Impact Investors are actually philanthropic by nature since they are ready to invest in ventures that are not necessary providing highest financial returns but deliver high social returns, hence social good. Hence, they use their innovativeness to come up with business ventures that look first and foremost at social good and then financial returns. Philanthropists, of course, offer their resources to address poverty or other challenges facing the community. Looking at the concept of business in philanthropy, for example, my opinion is that for philanthropic interventions to be sustainable, business thinking has to come into play, such that every philanthropic institution has to be run like a business in terms of strategies, thinking and conduct.

It is also high time that business models are adopted in philanthropic institutions in order to ensure sustainability in our interventions. We have started to see in Africa examples of philanthropic institutions that are establishing business wings that help them generate resources for philanthropy. I think this is a welcome move, as long as we continue to ensure that those businesses are ethical and run in the most transparent manner. On the other hand, it was emphasised during the conference that even if an entity was established purely as a business operation, it is important to see to it that those businesses can support philanthropic interventions in various ways, either through material support or through in-kind support of one way or another.

In terms of the shift from traditional forms of philanthropy towards more strategic forms of philanthropy, here I should say there is nothing wrong with the traditional forms of philanthropy which involve charitable contributions, and hence I am not in favour of the so-called shift towards more strategic forms of philanthropy.  Traditional forms of philanthropy in Africa really emphasise the Ubuntu culture amongst Africans, the show of personal love in giving and not just a financial transaction, so every giving is associated with commitment of time and compassion towards the one you are giving to. I believe that should be maintained. However, it is a fact that times are changing, people and communities are becoming more mobile, more sophisticated and the types of issues to be addressed have also changed.

Hence, the challenge here is not to shift from the traditional forms of philanthropy but rather to nurture a new type of philanthropy which can also leverage on unique corporate capabilities. I believe the increased urbanisation happening in our continent, coupled with the growing middle class and the emerging elite, presents a good opportunity for the new form of philanthropy that can leverage corporate capabilities. The role of EAAG and similar bodies is to showcase these new models, create awareness amongst people and share success stories. I believe through this, we will start seeing more and more of this new type emerging in Africa.

WINGS: From the EAAG blog: “The new global concepts in philanthropy such as social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy and high impact philanthropy all point to a global recognition by philanthropists of the need to apply businesslike approaches to philanthropy. This ensures maximum return on Philanthropic Investment with unique social returns.” What are some examples of these returns?

JU: There could be a number of social returns emanating from applying businesslike approaches to philanthropy. These include access by communities to health, education and water services for free or at affordable prices and hence having a direct impact on the quality of life in terms of well-being of the community; this could be reduced mortality rates, increased life expectancy and reduced burden of disease. All those could be achieved through philanthropy using business approaches.

The conference dealt with the general challenge of ensuring that businesses and philanthropic institutions start talking and working together to explore all these avenues to impact on the communities even more, and in that score, it was very successful.

More WINGS interviews here.

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