written by Vuyiswa Sidzumo, Director CS Mott South Africa
There is no doubt that civil society in its broadest sense –nongovernmental organisations
(NGOs), churches, social movements, etc. – plays a critical role in our society. But, after reading
yet another article about how citizens are letting civil society down by not providing financial
support to it, this kind of fired me up to reflect on this, and perhaps play the devil’s advocate.
While this is a legitimate and sensible argument, I always find that those that promote individual
giving do it in a very one-sided way. There is an undertone of emotional blackmail, which may
be off-putting for some would-be givers. Is it then any wonder that we fail to convince people to
give to development projects?
After several attempts to persuade my highly educated friends, who are not working in the
nonprofit sector, to give to various causes of their choice, I was taken aback by what I
unravelled. The first, and most positive discovery, was that they are all willing to give. In fact
many already give to various causes including soup kitchens, paying for uniforms, school fees
and other related expenses for underprivileged children, donating to churches and various
charities, etc. None of them come from wealthy families, so, in varying degrees, they all provide
financial support to family members. The surprise, however, was the glaze over their eyes the
minute I started talking about philanthropy. None of them could relate to this terminology, at
least not in the way I had expected. I began to wonder if I’d fallen into the trap of using
confusing terminology in a typical NGO fashion. I’ve always wondered why we use such fancy
language in the NGO sector to describe what are otherwise simple issues. That is a debate for
Another surprise was that none of my friends were interested in giving to NGOs, as, in their
view, the money ends up being absorbed by administrative costs, and doesn’t reach their targets.
When I asked them how recipients would be sought, found, and supported – and with what
resources – they grudgingly admitted that some so-called administrative costs could be justified.
Allow me to digress a bit. Not to downplay the concern about administrative costs, but I usually
find the arguments that accompany this concern are shallow and ill-conceived. Of course, there
are organizations that exploit donors and have huge administrative budgets with very little
funding trickling down to beneficiaries. There are, however, organizations that do great work at
minimal cost. We need to understand that a program officer who spends 80 percent of his/her
time delivering a service to beneficiaries is surely not an administrative cost. To make matters
worse, NGOs rarely challenge donors on this matter. The interesting thing is that those that are
confident enough to challenge it usually do so successfully. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Going back to the conversation with my friends … Reflecting on their responses, I wondered if
the language we use when trying to persuade people to give may be shallow, inappropriate and
inadequate. We can’t take for granted that in a mere 18 years into democracy, we would have a
culture of giving to civil society similar to countries like the U.S., where citizens have
understood, for generations, the importance of an active civil society to protect freedoms and
liberties. In such societies, people are able to make the link between giving and living in a free
and better society. I bet they did not achieve this overnight. In South Africa, people still take
our newfound freedoms for granted. If the recent Marikana tragedy is anything to go by, then we
underestimate how quickly these freedoms can get eroded. The lack of action by society is even
more shocking than the killings. I wonder what kind of society that makes us.
I’ve been asking colleagues if it’s time for us to rethink our messages on giving. The NGO
sector is sometimes so self-absorbed in our own jargon that we fail to capture people’s
imagination. Can we get some creative minds like the teams that do Coca Cola and Nando’s
adverts to help us think differently about ways to engage and persuade our fellow citizens to give
to civil society causes? How do I simplify a message about giving to an advocacy program? It’s
easier to convince someone to give to a soup kitchen, which is important given the backlog we
still have to deal with, but the minute you talk about practical implications of this or that law and
the need to contribute money to change the law, you lose them.
If we are to make this democracy tick, we need an active and strong civil society. I don’t think
I’ve succeeded in fully convincing my friends about supporting the “intangibles,” but it’s work
in progress, and I’m not about to give up. If we simplify these messages, and stop trying to
“bully” or blackmail people into giving, perhaps this could take us somewhere. What do you