“Framing Grantmaking in the Spirit of Ubuntu : Lessons from the 2012 EFC Conference
Jul 02, 2012

~ By Amina Doherty

 “You give what you’ve got to give…Ubuntu, music, community…resources. As foundations, grantmakers, and as people…as people…We must do things because they are important…because they matter.” ~ Justice Albie Sachs

These, the powerful words of South Africa’s Justice Albie Sachs[1] in the closing plenary of the European Foundation Centre’s (EFC) 23rd Annual General Assembly and Conference in Belfast two weeks ago. The theme of this year’s conference: “Peace for Social Justice: A Role for Foundations.”

This was the first time I had ever attended an EFC Conference and truth be told I was a little nervous and not entirely sure what to expect. Given FRIDA’s relatively new presence in the world of grantmaking and philanthropy together with our comparatively small grantmking budget, I did find myself wondering – Would I have a place? How could I contribute? What would I learn?

What I discovered quickly is that not only did FRIDA have a place but that we also had a role to play in sharing our experiences and contributing to the learning of other larger foundations. I learned that in spite of years of experience and wealth of resources, many trusts and foundations do need space to come together and learn from and with each other.

Inspired in large part by the words of Justice Sachs who implored all of us present to recognize the value we bring individually to the table regardless of size or experience, I was happy to share some key insights and experiences from FRIDA as a Fund led for and by young women, with our unique approach to social-justice grantmaking. There were many questions: what do you mean by a participatory approach? Practically how does that work? Do the young people involved actually engage? What are you learning? I was happy to answer many of those questions and share the ways that we are also learning to be more effective and to think more strategically about our approach.

Another key point of learning I took from the conference, and certainly from the closing plenary was a greater sense that FRIDA’s role as a Fund must continue to be about building and strengthening relationships with and between ‘people’. In this work we often hear about ‘donors’ and ‘grantees’ and sometimes forget that in spite of our different roles we are all ‘people’ committed to improving our communities and lives. Sometimes we become stuck in the ‘language’ of grantmaking and philanthropy (we begin to see ourselves only as ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’) that we lose sight of why we are actually in this work. I was glad to share the ways that FRIDA acknowledges existing power dynamics and continues to push to be a fund that is led by its constituency for its constituency. I shared that we may not have it ‘right’ yet but by encouraging participation at all levels and by being open to on-going engagement about how to make our grantmaking better – we are committed to being less about what we say we will do and what we actually do.

“We cannot (and will not) look like everybody else…We must be confident in who we are and what we can contribute.” ~ Justice Albie Sachs

I left the EFC Conference reaffirmed that the issue here was not about years of grantmaking experience, or the size of our fund (and yes these things are certainly relevant) but what ultimately is most important was that we see the significant value of FRIDA’s role to mobilize support for our constituency – for young feminists doing truly important social justice work globally. Whether it is young feminist activists on the ground coordinating programs or young feminists within grantmaking institutions mobilizing more resources, offering support, fostering spaces for learning and engagement….we all have a role to play and that is…the spirit of what Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Peace Activist Leymah Gbowee call ‘Ubuntu.[2] Ubuntu is an African philosophy that provides an understanding of the human being in relation with the world. It involves having a spirit of caring and community, harmony and hospitality, respect and responsiveness with others.[3] That is the spirit of FRIDA.

Attending the EFC conference this year was a great experience not only because it provided me with an opportunity to listen, learn and engage with trusts and foundations committed to supporting social justice work across Europe, but it also emphasized the spirit of Ubuntu by re-directing me to FRIDA’s core values:


Key Highlights from the EFC Conference:

  • Launch of the newest GrantCraft Guide Funding for Inclusion: Women and Girls in the Equation.” Jointly commissioned with Mama Cash, the guide presents practical experiences and lessons from 15 European foundations committed to funding women and girls’. The guide can be downloaded free of charge from www.grantcraft.org.
  • The EFC session also called “Funding for Inclusion” was moderated by Jo Andrews from the Ariadne Network in conversation with Kathleen Cravero-Kristoffersson (President of the Oak Foundation) and Adrian Arena (Director of the International Human Rights Program at the Oak Foundation).  Both Kathleen and Adrian shared their experiences and commitment to providing on-going support for women’s rights work globally with their “just do it!” philosophy. Following the plenary, I participated by hosting a roundtable discussion on strategies for integrating gender and youth perspectives in foundation programs together with Antonella Ricci from the Compagnia di San Paolo in Italy. For more on the session do check out the GrantCraft Blog.


*Special thanks to the European Trusts and Foundations that contributed to the EFC Scholarship Programme for supporting FRIDA’s participation at this year’s conference.

[1] Justice Sachs has dedicated his life working for human rights and was a key figure in bringing democracy to South Africa. Since his retirement from the Constitutional Court, Justice Sachs has travelled around the world sharing the South African experience in healing divided societies.

[2] To understand the South African philosophy of ‘ubuntu’ is to understand one’s place in the world as part of something….as part of something bigger than just oneself…As part of community. Ubuntu broadly refers to a way of caring for other’s and is steeped heavily in a spirit of generosity and altruism. According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s definition: “Ubuntu speaks to the very essence of being human.” As a philosophy, he says, “Ubuntu speaks to the fact that we do not exist as human beings in isolation. It speaks to our interconnectedness.” Similarly, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee in her own definition of the principles of Ubuntu says: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

[3] Mangaliso, M.P. (2001) Building competitive advantage from Ubuntu: Management lessons from South Africa, Academy of Management Executive, 15( 3): 23-33.