From Ephemeral to Perennial pools: Negotiating Shifts in African Philanthropy Practice

From Ephemeral to Perennial Pools: Negotiating Shifts in African Philanthropy Practice


In a previous article[1], I used the analogy of ephemeral pools of water that develop during the rainy season to describe a particular characteristic of African philanthropy. In that analogy, I argued that African philanthropy usually tends to emerge as an ad-hoc response to a societal challenge be it a funeral, spread of a disease, drought, or a natural disaster like a flood. In this sense, one may not see offices or directions to an African philanthropy institution within a community. It emerges just like the actual ephemeral pools which appear during the rainy seasons and quickly disappears when the wet season is over. In many instances, it reacts to an event except maybe for some facets like the communal granary which anticipates that there may be food-insecure households within the community.

The fact that African philanthropy exists is perhaps no longer a contested subject. Scholars such as Bhekinkosi Moyo[2], Halima Mohammed[3], Tade Akin Aina[4], Jacob Mwati[5] and many others have demonstrated through case studies and explanations of culture that we are indeed a people with a concern for each other and give towards important causes. Reports published by Trust Africa (2013) and the most recent study by EPIC Africa have also demonstrated the same. Africans, regardless of their economic stations, are giving to various causes. There are various studies that have helped to put a dent on the stereotypes of Africa being a continent of beggars or beneficiaries of aid. Even seemingly unrelated studies on subjects such as Illicit Financial Flows have made it clear that Africa is a net creditor to the world.

What Do We Know About African Philanthropy?

The emerging body of knowledge on African philanthropy has served to challenge analogies of ‘entitlement to aid’ or ‘dependency syndrome’ that have been deployed to unfairly describe Africans. The central argument is that Africans have over the years shaped their own agency in response to the various crises that they have had to confront. These include but are not limited to mobilising resources to support their own liberation from colonial rule, community-led initiatives in response to devastating droughts, support during some of the major health crises- such as during the HIV/AIDS pandemic period and more recently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are several African communities/villages that are yet to interact with external agents of development be it an NGO, a private foundation or at times even a government agency. How then have they been surviving? They have formed several defence mechanisms which include mutual giving associations, savings groups, labour pools etc. These have played a huge role in cohering a social order albeit without resolving underlying structural causes of philanthropy. It can also be equally argued that formalised philanthropy has not been effective in dealing with structural causes of poverty.

However, Africa, despite having its forms of philanthropy remains poor and a recipient of significant amounts of external support. It receives the largest share of Official Development Aid (ODA)[6] although it also has the largest outflows of resources through illicit financial flows[7]. How do we leverage on what exists to shift from ephemerality to perennial pools of philanthropy? The practice of Philanthropy in other regions entails the establishment of strategic reserves of funds known as endowments which ensure the perpetual existence of a foundation or a Trust. We treat these endowments and strategic reserves as constituting perennial pools. They allow for long-term strategic thinking. Some of these funds have been deployed to proactively respond to emerging challenges or even to support futuristic work which is highly necessary. In the African case, our community-led or even HNWI-driven initiatives no matter how brave, are not yet resilient and have not achieved long-term sustainability. The good news is we have a strong foundation to build upon and it has the following:

1. the existing evidence that Africans have a proclivity towards giving,

2. our cultures are mostly driven by values of Ubuntu (I am because you are)-

3. our existence is not individual but communal,

4. there is a growing number of what is now commonly referred to as Africa’s middle class with a disposable income and capacity to give.

5. what is now commonly referred to as crowdfunding has deep African roots. We have always gathered small amounts    from members within the community to accomplish great causes.

However, there is still a lot that is not yet in place. Lessons learnt from other regions where perennial pools of philanthropy exist have demonstrated the need for a conducive operating environment, aligning giving to an individual’s self-interest/benefit and a recognizable and well-governed non-profit/charity sector that can deploy received resources to achieve positive change. In our context, we face the following challenges:

   Policy Inconsistencies

Many governments and regional economic communities (RECS) are yet to embrace local giving as a pillar of development.  There are some countries that have put in place incentives at policy level to encourage giving but they are a minority. There is evidence to suggest that current policymaking thinking may produce policies that inhibit the growth of the sector (read our various state of philanthropy reports here - The new NGO laws being passed by many African governments will make it difficult for CSOs to attract funds from external sources.

  ~Increasing Dependency on External Support

Ironically the philanthropy sector in Africa is still dependent for most of its budget on support from Western support. The reliance on support from others is understandable. The continent has been a victim of looting and plunder of her own resources during and after the colonial period. The growth of the middle class is a very recent phenomenon. One of the most respected observers of philanthropy trends, Gerry Salole, explained this reliance through the analogy of a scaffold that is used to complete a building. External resources in this instance are an important scaffold to help the sector grow its own house (resources) which happens over time. As already mentioned, there is evidence of increased giving by locals towards non-family and non-religious causes.

  ~ Inadequate Connection between Givers and Civil Society Groups

Many organisations working in the civil society space have over the years been organized with the logic of securing funding from institutional funders. They have not adequately invested in telling their impact stories to a broader audience outside of those who fund them. They have not created an ecosystem for individual giving. On the other hand, would-be givers know very little about organisations working on various issues that they may have an interest in. In many instances, NGOs operating across the continent are seen as ‘islands of privilege’. However, increasingly several NGOs are facing funding challenges that threaten their existence. Some have managed to remake themselves, but they attract mostly project-based funding which does not support institutional stability and growth.

  ~ Limited use of technology in driving giving

As already stated, most NGOs have not yet adequately invested in fundraising from individuals. Existing technology-driven platforms to attract funding have not been widely used.

  ~ Limited collaboration among philanthropy actors 

Current collaboration (if not polite speak for competition) is mostly around hosting of dialogues, conferences, and research collaboration. African philanthropists rarely seek each to work on a big cause. However, the COVID-19 perhaps served as an important reminder about the value of working together. There is an African proverb which states; ‘if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far go together’. In its most authentic form African philanthropy is a culmination of peer-to-peer solidarity. We are yet to replicate this practice amongst organisations and in mobilizing resources for big causes. African philanthropy focused organisations need to come together in responses to the challenges of formalizing and growing perennial pools.

Promoting the Shift from Ephemerality

There is an urgent need for interventions in creating the shift from ephemerality towards perennial pools of philanthropy. The envisaged shift aligns with the calls for shifting the power in philanthropy. A demonstration of African unity and resolve by mobilizing her own resources to chart her own path is the missing part of the puzzle. Those who control purse strings define the path that Africans should take. There are several urgent measures that we need to take. As the saying goes it takes a village to raise a child. This child called African Philanthropy will not grow alone but will require an entire village to help it grow. We need the following:

  ~ Concerted Advocacy for Philanthropy Friendly Laws across Africa

Studies carried out by SIVIO Institute (, CAPSI and others have demonstrated a worrying trend- the penchant amongst governments to legislate against philanthropy instead of nurturing the sector. The African philanthropy sector is yet to adequately develop an advocacy-based response to these bad laws. In fact, the connection between policy and its role in growing philanthropy has rarely been made.

  ~ Messaging on the Importance and Vulnerability of the CSO Sector Across Africa

As earlier stated, the civic space is seen as a site of privilege in Africa where insiders earn in foreign currency and seem to have more stability than their counterparts in other sectors. The vulnerabilities within the civic space have not been widely shared. There is a limited connection/attribution between what civil society organisations do and the broader benefits that accrue from their work such as ensuring there is peace, reduction of incidence of gender-based violence, increased recognition of the rights of the girl child, improved rural livelihood, knowledge about rights etc. It takes budgets to fight for these good causes and yet many do not understand the challenges of fundraising.

  ~ Leveraging Technology to advance individual giving.

Evidence from elsewhere has demonstrated the importance of leveraging technology to enhance individual giving. There is a suite of technology-based platforms that are required to make this a reality. First, there is the need to communicate the importance of aligning giving to important causes. In this instance, it is vital to tap into social media on-built capabilities to spread the message around the need to give and to profile the good work of NGOs. Equally, financial technology (fintech) has spread across the continent, but it is yet to be adequately integrated into the philanthropy space.


[2] Philanthropy in Africa

[3] Reframing African Philanthropy

[4] Giving to Help, Helping to Give

[5] Philanthropy in contemporary Africa

[6] Where does aid go?

[7] New trends in illicit financial flows from Africa