Gabrielle Ritchie, Director, The Change Room – 28 October 2014

Most people imagine a philanthropist as someone who has millions or billions in the bank and just looking for someone to give it to. Not true. Anyone with a bit of spare cash can be an effective philanthropist. Cheryl Chapman of City Philanthropy (London, UK), wrote that effective philanthropy today is “not about what you give, but the way that you give it”. “Size should not matter”, writes Chapman – “it’s what you do with your resources that can really count.” (

I completely agree.

Agreeing with the notion that ‘you don’t have to be rich to be a philanthropist’ raises the obvious question of, ‘what is a philanthropist?’ So, allow me to share the working definition that I use: a philanthropist is somebody who takes their own cash and spends it on supporting a cause that they believe in, a cause that they believe will improve their community, enrich social development, and contribute to redressing social advantage/disadvantage and crippling inequity.

We should all, as engaged citizens, support social development. We need to give what we can to causes and initiatives that we believe will make a quantifiable (or qualifiable) difference to the intended person, or groups of people, or issue. We can give in small amounts, regularly. We can give bigger once-off donations when we have the money. We can pool our resources and form a giving circle, an increasingly popular way of engaging in social development. But it is about how the giving happens, what the intention is, what cause or initiative is supported, and what the long-term systemic impact is intended to be. It is about active citizenship and standing up to be counted. It is about being able to answer the question: “So what did YOU do to make things different?” It’s the counter-balance to social and civil apathy and dependency.

Defining philanthropy as such is in no way intended to undermine or negate the enormous value of more immediate needs-based giving. Such support is the very stuff of what makes us human, it is the essence of community and in times of crisis, it’s a necessity, e.g. donations of food and clothing after a natural disaster. We can also give time, energy, expertise and support.

I was based at Inyathelo (Cape Town, South Africa) to establish South Africa’s first annual Philanthropy Awards to recognise our local heroes. The key message shared every year at these awards, is that it doesn’t matter how much you give, it’s what you achieve with what you are able to contribute.

We also have to be mindful that we give in ways that are about co-creation, co-development and co-activism. And, if we can get that right, and share resources in a way that doesn’t recreate and entrench existing structures and dynamics of power and privilege, then we will be on the right platform to start creating a just society.

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