I get asked a lot about what we do at Paradigm Initiative and why we do them. Even more interesting is when people ask why would anyone give us money to do what we do. These questions are two-faced. On one side is the curiosity around what we do and on the other side is the curiosity on why people give non-profits money at all. This is a microcosm of a bigger conversation on philanthropy and non-profit work. Many people are curious to understand how non-profits survive or pay their staff if they don’t make profits? When I am asked these questions, I simply respond by saying that we have funders and great partners who believe in what we do. Really, why would anyone put their money in a non-profit venture? I actually wished it ended there but there’s usually a follow-up question to that as well and I find that even more interesting. The question is why can’t the funders just go directly to the beneficiary and give them the money instead of going through a third party?
For those who work in or understand the non-profit space, these may come across as silly questions, but they aren’t for key reasons. This is not just for those who are outside the space, but also as an opportunity for self-reflection for those working in the space.
Philanthropy and non-profit work have been abused in many ways and this hasn’t helped the conceptualisation of the work. In my part of the world, every political office holder and/or their spouse run non-profit initiatives which in many cases are a vehicle of corruption. In other contexts, non-profits have been set up as a political tool to dilute, antagonise or suppress genuine civic demands. On the global stage, powerful nations use philanthropy as an ideological tool for international diplomacy. However, none of these conflations defeat the essence of philanthropy and non-profit work.
We do what we do because it is important work
First point I’d love to make is that non-profit workers are as important as those who give them the money to do what they do. In the words of the renowned author, Steve Goodier, “Money is not the only commodity that is fun to give. We can give time, we can give our expertise, we can give our love, or simply give a smile.”All of these have their relevance contextually but an even more profound description of the importance of non-monetary gifts was captured in the words of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American writer, when he said that, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Those who work in non-profits are giving themselves to do the work that many find unattractive, risky or not sufficiently rewarding.
At Paradigm Initiative, some of our impact stories are well documented and they tell the stories of the impacts and reach of our work. Beyond these, there is actual unquantifiable value through the entire value chain of the resources invested in our work. Each dollar invested into the work since inception has been multiplied in impact with other complementary benefits to our immediate communities and the world at large.
A 1994 Ford Foundation report articulates the next point I want to make brilliantly when it asserts that, “To get the best long-term results, the Foundation should not only provide grants to help competent men do their best work, but should also seek to increase the supply of competent men.” Beyond great projects, there’s a need for great minds, talents and innovation. Those who carry out the work must be empowered to continue to do the great work and with increased capacity. More expertise is required in the non-profit space in order to multiply impact and optimise the returns on investment.
One of the primary motivations for philanthropy is a desire to give back to society. Many philanthropists feel a sense of responsibility to use their resources to make the world a better place. Many who have chosen to build a career in the non-profit sector are driven by similar goals. However, to create lasting change, we must understand that social issues are complex and require long-term sustainable solutions. If the goal is to create lasting change that will benefit future generations, then money can not be thrown at problems. Investment must be made in the entire value chain of identified issues to holistically address these problems. It was the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair who said that the best philanthropy is not just about giving money but giving leadership. In his words, “the best philanthropists bring the gifts that made them successful—the drive, the determination, the refusal to accept that something can’t be done if it needs to be—into their philanthropy.”
Some of the wins relating to voting rights, gender equality, abolisment of slave trade and other landmark shifts in systems were made possible by significant investments in building systems to challenge the status quo. Protests, riots and other organic social movements are great. To see actual and lasting change, however, the world will always need a community of people who are willing to stay the course, develop new skills and provide required leadership on issues that require change in our world.
Narrowing this down to our focus at Paradigm Initiative to deepen digital inclusion and promote digital rights in Africa, these principles have clearly proven to be valid. The sixteen years of our existence have witnessed many ups and downs, and learnings that have made us better at what we do. For example, our flagship program, the LIFE program which focused on connecting under-served young Africans with digital opportunities recorded significant impact and testimonies of changed lives. The learnings from implementing this program is what propelled us to introduce the LIFE Legacy program which allows us to multiply the impact beyond what our small team could have been able to achieve. We are exporting our learnings, processes, and curriculum to partners all over Africa, allowing them to deliver bespoke capacity building interventions that took us many years to get right.
The promise of the LIFE legacy program is geometrical in anticipated impact. This can be seen as a long term result of the investment by many of our earlier funding partners. While we have submitted reports and met targets set at the time, the impact continues to reverberate in our work, and that of our existing and new partners who see us as a mentor and leader in the space. This is why we do what we do, and why philanthropic investments – that are better suited for systems and institutions – help institutions like Paradigm Initiative do the work efficiently.
Written by Adeboye Adegoke, Senior Manager, Grants and Programs Strategy at Paradigm Initiative.