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Philanthropic for Profit

by Ella Grimwade / 15.01.2014

Charity has become something of a dirty word. Dominated by enormous international NGO’s, the charity sector seems incapable of solving social issues. The gap between the richest and poorest grows annually and many of the World Development Goals are not being met. It’s depressing. Really depressing. And discouraging. So are we doomed to a global hardening of our hearts and acceptance that “life isn’t fair”? A “Sorry bru, can’t help you” mentality? Or do we just need to re-define how we think about charity? Devoid of “hand-outs” and NGO implemented “development projects” a far more pragmatic and respectful approach would be to provide people with the opportunities to help themselves. But that takes a bit of thinking outside the box, a bit of… innovation.

Charles Maisel has spent the last decade investing in what he terms “social innovation”: supplying impoverished and disadvantaged individuals with the tools to turn their own lives around. His flagship organisation Men on the side of the Road (MSR) targeted the men who line the roads of South Africa hoping to be picked for casual labour. Pay, hours and working conditions are decided by the employer and completely unregulated. It’s inconsistent, unreliable and unsafe. Every day men are left disappointed, resorting to begging. These men aren’t lazy or incompetent, they are the victims of widespread unemployment and a lifetime of disadvantage. NGO’s tend to shy away from this less doe-eyed portion of South Africa’s impoverished and opt to aid the children or neglected hounds. That’s not to say kids and dogs are any less deserving, but when you’re relying on traditional charity to distribute aid you can’t deny it pays to be cute. For the rugged, battered, defeated men to be given much help there needs to be another incentive.

Rather than tossing a few coins in their direction, Maisel stopped and talked to the few of the men he drove past and identified the business potential of this human resource. He set up MSR, a work placement program which provides the men with consistent, regulated employment and provides further training to develop their skills set. Since its birth in Cape Town, MSR has spread to Johannesburg, Pretoria, Nelspruit, Durban, George and Port Elizabeth and has helped thousands find consistent work.

From the success of MSR, Maisel established multiple projects along similar lines, like Black Umbrellas, which facilitates start-up funds for business innovations put forward by impoverished individuals and has become what Charles terms a business “machine”. Both MSR and Black Umbrellas have become nation-wide initiatives, but not all Maisel’s “investments” are giant projects, and some require him to get his hands dirty. The first time I met him he spent most of the time bent double, red faced, with mud smeared across his forehead from where he’d tried to wipe off beads of sweat. He was planting Lavender.

Lavender Hills

Based in the beleaguered township Lavender Hills, the Lavender Hills Project takes donated lavender cuttings and cultivates them in a local primary school. Once mature, the lavender is planted in plots throughout the local community. The scent of lavender, along with the colourful blooms, improve the lives of the local residents. Improving the aesthetics is hoped to cultivate pride within the community, and make people more inclined to care for it. If that all sounds a bit airy-fairy, both the Lavender Hills Project and the communities can also make some money through selling cuttings of their plants to a local business which turn them into luxury soaps and toiletry products. It is not a massive earner. Occasionally large corporations will pay to send their staff on a voluntary planting day – team-building and improving their “humanitarian image” in one fell swoop; but most of the time it is small earnings for a small team. But it is their business. It is little enterprises like this where Maisel remains most involved.

Maisel’s not your classic philanthropist and nobody gets something for nothing. Pragmatic and perpetually a business man, every project set up is an investment. Maisel expects, and he gets, a return. Whether a member of the board, a share-holder, or a hands-on planter of Lavender, Maisel keeps a finger in the pie and is financially rewarded for it. In some ways this approach could be seen as charity-in-reverse. Most NGO’s spout high morals and claim to save hundreds of lives through the generosity of human spirit, but can become corrupt, ineffective and patronising. Maisels’s projects are transparent in their business dealings and enable people to help themselves out of their situations with self-respect and independence. All of Maisel’s projects reflect the ethics of hard work, good ideas, and equal opportunities. If these qualities were reflected in all global business then NGO’s would probably be out of a job.

The thought of intentionally setting out to make money through charity initially causes a bit of a moral dilemma. Surely that’s not how charity is meant to work? But when you look at the benefits, socially, economically, and individually, which come from this business model approach, it is hard to argue this isn’t philanthropy at its best. Maisel is upfront about his intention to make money, but his approach not only achieves a success rate to rival any NGO, it also gives people a chance to escape from their “victim” persona. It’s a new charity doctrine from a philanthropic profit, it takes a leap of faith but it’s one I’m starting to believe in.

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