Band-Aid Heart

Becoming Better at Doing Good: Unlearning Charity

By Jonathan Wilson
Managing Partner – Impact, ThirdWay Capital


Until recently in Western societies, the dominant view has been that if the betterment of the world is one’s primary objective, then business isn’t the path for it. Business is for making money. Rather take the path of charity. Do good only for good’s sake.

A shift is underway: people are increasingly interested in doing business for good’s sake. Nevertheless, the charitable, or not-for-profit, sector remains a significant expression of our efforts to improve our world. Like Capitalism, charitable work is driven by assumptions that also need to be un-picked and evaluated. A working definition of a charity is an organization that uses the donated resources of one group of people to improve the lives of another group of people.

Positively, much not-for-profit work is driven by, well, love. This is the root meaning of the word “charity”. It is a sector driven and shaped by generosity, a place where few are motivated by personal gain and most by the betterment of others. Historically, charities have gone where few businesses would care to go – into places of tremendous hardship and even danger. Charities will invest where return on investment may, at least in material terms, feel like nothing more than personal deprivation.

Charity is in my bloodstream. My great-grandparents, grandparents and parents devoted their lives to the transformation and rights of tribes in the Belgian Congo and New Guinea (where I grew up). In 1998 I began an eight-year stint in South Africa and into the rest of the continent. I worked in a large not-for-profit, initially in political mediation and peace work, then in broader multi-stakeholder social change processes, and leadership development.

It is from within the charity sector that I began to detect, in my early career, some of the inherent weaknesses or, at least, vulnerabilities of the traditional not-for-profit model. These can be captured in one word: disconnect. Many charities are vulnerable to all of these disconnects, others to only some of them. All of them can be overcome.

Barriers to Good: The Disconnects of Charity

1. Structural Disconnect

The assumption that business is for making money and charity for doing good leads to a deep structural disconnect. The marketplace is the main mechanism by which most societies try to make life work. When charities operate non-commercially, it means in many cases that they offer solutions to a society that function apart from what is perhaps its most fundamental structure.

Such solutions are inherently unstable and unsustainable, because they are disconnected from the natural, indeed rigorous, accountabilities at work in the marketplace. In the marketplace, you can’t make a product that people don’t want or that doesn’t work, because they won’t buy it.

Absence of a competitive mechanism too often leads to a market saturated with variations of the same service, each charity delivering it as poorly as the next. Donor funds are wasted but so is the time and energy of the beneficiary community. When the customer is not the buyer, there is no accountability mechanism sufficiently robustto prevent the charity from doing good poorly – or worse, from causing harm.

Recognizing this disconnect, more charities now target the marketplace, e.g. supporting entrepreneurship through micro-lending. This does not resolve a lingering and fundamental disconnect between the world of a charity and the world of the beneficiary: the charity’s staff live and breathe all that is involved in running a donor-based operation while trying to help clients operate within the fundamentally different and less forgiving marketplace. It’s like a deep-sea fisherman teaching a farmer to practise crop rotation. He might know the theory, he might even be a skilled teacher, but it’s not his own reality.

2. Disconnect from Destiny

Externally resourced charity disconnects a society from its destiny. It shuts down vision, initiative and creativity. It fosters dependency. In southern Africa a ubiquitous character in the not-for-profit sector was the “seminar-hopper”: the individual going from development opportunity to development opportunity just because it existed and cost little or nothing. It kept the individual busy, and often fed and housed them too.

3. Cultural Disconnect

Externally resourced solutions suffer cultural disconnect by placing final accountability with the donor (and the charity), and not the buyer. Although charities increasingly work with outcomes-based metrics that prioritize sustainability, the fact remains that whoever holds the purse holds the power: specifically, the power that determines the charity’s guiding assumptions, priorities and methods.

Foreign charities therefore remain weak at leveraging existing indigenous knowledge and cultural systems. In spite of the availability of years of cross-cultural and worldview research, foreign workers too often continue to overly influence the design and even implementation of local solutions on the basis of their own prior assumptions. Any progress they achieve risks being unnatural, or alien; it does not flow from within, or build upon (or recover), cultural DNA, and so it isn’t likely to be effective, let alone sustainable.

Wherever a charity’s work involves a cross-cultural interaction (even if it is suburban workers engaging with inner-city clients), it is difficult not to unintentionally impose one’s own value systems in analysing the local situation: values that flow out of deep and often unconsciously-held assumptions about power, authority, leadership, the individual, the group, time, nature, technology, gender roles and sexuality.

4. Psychological Disconnect

Least visible but most powerful is the psychological disconnect. When charities operate apart from the marketplace they unwittingly sever change from desire. The willingness to expend valuable resources (including money) on something is a tangible and significant indicator of desire, and desire is the primary fuel for change. I can want to quit smoking, but when I willingly spend good money to do so, my desire has now reached the state of volition; the will has been engaged. Change is now attainable.

When someone does not contribute to their own progress, they will not, ultimately, identify with it. It will in fact be someone else’s progress. I have seen many a school, clinic or other project abandoned and in decay because the charity mistook assent for desire and, often, because the project could not be sustained within the local economic system: all because the charity, not the customer, was the buyer.

Reasons for Charity

Donor-based charity is needed. Charity is often needed by those who don’t want it, or who don’t know they need it. For example, it is unlikely any Ontario community would retain Christian Horizons on a commercial basis to help it change its attitudes and posture towards the developmentally disabled. The Scott Mission will never be hired by the homeless or the struggling immigrant. The world is a darker place without charities that work where there is no urgent desire but the need is great.

Charity is needed by those with no reasonable means to access or contribute to their relief. Bonded labourers and trafficked men, women and children have no resources whatsoever to contribute to their rescue (and if they have money squirreled away, their bondage ensures they can’t use it). Thus the International Justice Mission needs a donor-base to ensure it can perform its best-in-class work to liberate people who suffer violent exploitation.

Where the boundaries between charity and commercial offerings blur is when the person or community in need of the help is in a position to contribute something to it. The poor of a South African township can contribute in some way to receiving better housing, whether it is with their money, time or own labour. The assistance required can be measured in terms of whatever is needed to undergird or strengthen existing capacity, be that money, tools, knowledge, voice or influence.

Too often, charity is over-extended in its application. It is not the mission of charity that is the problem, but the mechanism. To do good well we have to:

  • Tap into the desire for change. We know desire has woken when someone is willing to pay a price for change. Until that happens, any quest for progress lacks the motivational grounding that will support and sustain deep change.
  • Integrate the charity and its operations with the culture and the structure in which people make their society work.
  • Connect the beneficiary community to their destiny, by taking on a partnering, even servant, posture and allowing them to own and indeed determine how their lives are improved.

There are many situations in which nothing good would happen except for the sponsorship of donors and the initiative of charities. But there is much charity that needs correcting, recalibrating or even reconstituting because its good intentions are thwarted by its disconnect from core dynamics of a society.

Case Study | Overcoming the Disconnects

In South Africa, local colleagues and I sought to build a leadership development offering that avoided these problems. We had inherited a leadership development institute that, till then (2001), heavily or wholly subsidized training candidates. It was dependent on huge amounts of foreign funding from Europe and North America. It was also built on a heavily didactic model of training, and relied on content sourced in the West.

We rebuilt our offering from scratch. To do so we accessed years’ worth of anthropological research in the Southern hemisphere as it related to leadership (and we sought insight from Western leadership development initiatives). We travelled the length and breadth of South Africa to find, learn from and even employ the best indigenous leadership practitioners and adult-learning specialists. We listened to the hearts and minds of emerging leaders, leaders who had experienced the traumas of Apartheid but who desired to build their nation anew. We could proudly say the resulting Ascent Leadership Program was “Made in Africa, for Africans.”

For three years after the launch we progressively increased program fees until they accurately represented real costs (but still with a built-in 50% subsidy for applicants from not-for-profits). This made for a sevenfold increase over fees offered in the past by our institute! More stringent criteria required that applicants be in visible leadership roles and supported by viable references. Bursary applicants had to demonstrate not only their needs, but also that they had taken all reasonable effort to source funding within their own networks.

Some onlookers criticized us. In their eyes we were making urgently needed leadership training even harder for the poor to access. However, as a Zulu friend once wryly observed, when a Kwaito (rap) star was in town to perform, suddenly the poor had money. People pay for what they value. Our job was to effectively market the desirability of our training. This was very challenging, because our target market in post-Apartheid South Africa represented very diverse experiences: men, women, Whites, Blacks, Indians and Coloureds (a distinct ethnic and cultural group in South Africa) – the formerly powerful and the formerly marginalized and oppressed.

As every business knows, packaging only goes so far. Results are the best marketing. Which is why it mattered greatly when applicants said, for example, “I want to come to Ascent because my boss came, and she is now a totally different leader.” As a result, we increasingly gained high quality applicants, people of initiative who deeply desired and valued high-quality leadership training. They demonstrated their leadership quality when they raised their own funds for the fees. By the end of three years, not only had we quadrupled programs and attendees, running in several locations across the country, but also 90% of participants were paying the full fee (for their sector).

Even now, years later, I’ll get an email or call from Sammy Njenga, a co-builder of Ascent living in South Africa, to tell me that he has run into another past participant expressing the long-lasting impact of Ascent on their leadership.

Ascent grew in the context of a market saturated with charities offering leadership development, much of it North American in content, and offering it very cheaply. Unfortunately, the results of such profoundly disconnected training are all too easy to observe: insufficient ownership of the change process, leadership concepts and practises disconnected from indigenous cultures and social structures, leaders shaped by dependency and not initiative. The accumulative results too often deepen social dysfunction. I think of Ascent as a small candle that burned in the gloom for a while, but which burned very brightly for its size, and even, in a few places, burned away the darkness altogether.


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