Preserving Philanthropic Gains in Africa

The following is a guest post from Joanna Motion, a partner with More Partnership, a fund-raising consulting group based in Dundee, Scotland.

The preserved skeleton of philosopher Jeremy Bentham is on display at the University College London.

Jeremy Bentham, the 19th-century philosopher and radical, popped up twice recently during a tour of London by a group of African university leaders. Once it was the man himself, or at least his skeleton, preserved, as requested in his will, as an “auto icon” in the cloisters of University College London. Surmounted by a wax head and dressed in his own clothes, walking stick to hand, nicely boxed, it is an irresistible photo opp for students and visitors alike.

The second sighting was of Bentham’s name in copperplate handwriting from 1825 against the sum of £100. It appears in the original book of benefactors to support what became Birkbeck, University of London. “Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge,” thundered George Birkbeck, as he rallied Londoners like Bentham to the cause of providing education to working people, recording their generosity in his proto-database, a handwritten ledger.

Bentham and Birkbeck, in their vintage English accents, provided role models in philanthropy for the African visitors, who were participants in the first study tour organized by the Advancement Academy at Stellenbosch, a fund-raising training program at Stellenbosch University, in South Africa. They had come to learn about the latest practices in university fund raising, but had fundamental questions about it.

“Define advancement,” insisted a southern African vice chancellor in the party. “What do you mean by educational philanthropy in an African context?”

It’s a hard question to answer, but we do have new examples to draw on. An African vice chancellor with a shrewd sense of what university “advancement” makes possible, is Russel Botman of Stellenbosch University. Botman is the first black leader of Stellenbosch, a university formerly known as “the cradle of apartheid,” and has sought to forge a new identity for it. For example, Stellenbosch’s Hope Project seeks to orient the institution’s research and teaching on global development goals, like eradicating disease and poverty. The energizing force of the effort gives Stellenbosch symbolic as well as practical impetus.

“We are not producing enough African solutions to African challenges,” Botman said as he assembled the Hope Project team. “The best way for us to realize that vision in Africa is to invest in African capacity-building.” Under a similar premise, he also created the Advancement Academy at Stellenbosch, which is gathering together leaders from across the continent, and appraising through an African lens what the rest of the world is doing in marketing, fund raising, and alumni relations.

The African visitors took home insights on the power of leadership, the value of local data, and the need to tell their own authentic stories, along with the souvenir image of Jeremy Bentham presiding over the great university whose character and convictions—secular, inclusive, philanthropic—his ideas influenced.

Two hundred years after Birkbeck urged his fellow Londoners to support “the benefits of the blessings of knowledge,” the cause is more genuinely universal than ever. Philanthropy is a world language. Fluency comes with study and with practice. But we’re learning that it’s spoken in a range of accents.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia image by Michael Reeve]

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