South African Organization Turns Philanthropy On Its Head

Jacob Lief's sense of community has taken a life of its own.

Inspired by the African concept of Ubuntu, the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity, Lief co-founded a South African organization that focuses on the community. That means having parents, teachers, students and leaders involved in day-to-day planning and weighing in on all decisions. As a result, the simple school program has evolved over the past eight years to reflect local needs.

Ubuntu now includes computer literacy classes, HIV/AIDS services and health classes. Nearly 40,000 children benefit from the various programs, like the library, school lunches from the in-house garden co-ops, counseling and drug therapy.

"We don't give handouts, and we're not a soup kitchen," the 29-year-old said, explaining that when people asked to get on the World Wide Web, folks built up the center and had to learn everything from wiring to the first click of the mouse.

Although the process is painfully slow Lief champions the community model. Long-lasting change comes from within, not from the top down, he repeated.

Sense of Community

At a recent benefit in New York City, the keynote speaker, Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, praised Lief and the Ubuntu Education Fund. "He didn't come in as a know-it-all," the South African archbishop said. "He has gone in as someone who has wanted to serve. He has also involved [our community] as partners."

Lief stresses that his organization implements real change instead of designing short-term fixes to long-term problems.

"It's not revolutionary," he said. "It's social entrepreneurship with a community-inclusive development program that has figured out how to put people at the middle of it."

"We started by listening to the community and have not stopped listening to the community," he added

By getting local people to buy into a project's purpose and goals, the Ubuntu model stresses social sustainability, which in turn will lead to financial stability.

Chance Meeting

Lief went to South Africa in the late '90s during his junior year in college to work for a nongovernmental organization but became dismayed. He left Cape Town and headed east, making his way to Port Elizabeth. He didn't wander long. The young man met Malizole Banks Gwaxula on his first evening in the city and moved in with Banks' family.

Lief eventually helped his new friend and host teach in the township. The lack of supplies and even proper classrooms shocked him and encouraged the duo to create their own grassroots program with a focus on education. Six months after their chance meeting, Lief and Banks founded the Ubuntu Education Fund in 1998.

"When I was first in the township three years after the end of apartheid, I encountered an unbelievable concept of community and family," he explained.

But lending an ear and getting everyone to chime in takes time.

Social Dividend

"Every day we take a step forward, we take 30 steps back," Lief said, citing extreme poverty, alcoholism, an AIDS epidemic and violence.

Changing the mind-set of people who endured racial segregation from 1948 to 1991 hasn't been easy, Lief acknowledged. He gauged Ubuntu's progress by saying that more and more people from the community regularly come to its centers.

Training takes time too.

The staff, which has grown to 50, comes from the Port Elizabeth area and is a product of rough-and-tumble upbringings.

Lief said that Ubuntu's local initiative and geographic focus will help the community become financially stable one day. Right now, 70 percent of Ubuntu's funding comes from the United States, with an active fundraising office in New York City.

Ubuntu guarantees its "investors" a return on their contributions, Lief said.

"We are a business and provide a social return, so for "X" amount of dollars, we show you that five mothers will get HIV treatment and care for their children," he said.

Listen Up

Lief criticized the lofty Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve extreme poverty and halt the spread of HIV by 2015.

"These are unachievable goals because the [communities'] voices aren't being heard," Lief said.

He has no intention of setting up Ubuntu centers elsewhere but believes that his model can become a blueprint for other countries.

Like a savvy business man he asks, "Rather than replicate, why not franchise?"