Sustainable change requires active participation

Why the most important thing we are doing won’t bring lasting change

By Neil Hart

The first principle I learned in philanthropy is that a soup kitchen that doubles the number of people they feed does not double its effectiveness, but actually halves its sustainable impact. It also creates more dependence on social and state support systems.

This simple principle should inform much of our thinking around social impact and is the topic I will explore in this article. But, before I dive headlong into that, I want to first celebrate the incredible work of soup kitchens and other feeding schemes during this time of COVID-19.

The recent drone footage of people in Mooiplaas near Pretoria queuing for food deeply moved me. Thousands upon thousands of people are desperate for food in South Africa and across the African continent. Hunger will certainly be one of our greatest challenges in the year ahead.

Mergon recently established a Gap Fund which serves as a distribution platform for small grants to financially support indispensable NPOs in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. We did this in response to witnessing many NPOs losing funding while the need for their services significantly increased. Each week, we pray through a long list of applications from incredible NPOs who are responding to this crisis. We have received close to R7.3 million in contributions thus far, and have been able to make more than 95 fund allocations.

Nobody knows our communities like the NPOs who are so deeply invested in the wellbeing of our nation’s people. What would our government do without these people sacrificing their time and resources and risking their lives to take care of people?


Our country needs to recognise and elevate the status of these heroes. Our medical professionals are rightly getting praised, but there is a sector of society, equally invested, who are remaining nameless and faceless. This is one of the noblest activities we could be doing at this time, helping those who are in such great need. John Bunyan said ‘You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.’ And we will most likely never be able to repay these unsung heroes.

Feeding people is not enough

But only feeding people is not enough. Sustainable change happens when we give responsibly – attending to the immediate, felt need (this will always be the first act of unconditional love and kindness) – but also leading people away from dependence towards self-sustainability.

Our initial acts of kindness should always lead to the reintegration of people so that they can become economically active. However, skills development as such should also not be the ultimate goal – it must always seek to connect people to opportunities to become economically active. And apart from skills development and a connection to opportunity, we should also journey with people to transform their worldview. This is a journey of body, mind (soul), and spirit. All acts meeting physical needs should be authentic and fueled by the love of Christ, expecting nothing in return.

Holistic transformation

It’s also important to remember that sustainable, long-term acts of kindness that lead to holistic transformation never happens in a vacuum – it is a wonderful opportunity for collaboration between state, business and church. It would be wise to seek those opportunities intentionally.

One of my favourite examples of a clever organisational pivot is the Red Band Barista Academy, founded five years ago as a way to address youth unemployment. As lockdown commenced, they realised many of their baristas would go without salaries due to coffee shops being closed. Soon, coffee4heroes was born which allowed people to sponsor a cup of coffee (R30) for a healthcare worker – a doctor, nurse, lab technician or hospital administration staff. Within a month, they received sponsorships for 1,700 cups of coffee and baristas received some income again.

It’s critical that, even in the heat of a crisis, we not only pivot our organisations, we also pivot mindsets.

In a recent survey we sent out on the topic of innovative sustainable solutions for communities, we heard many people respond that instead of only focussing on feeding schemes, more effort should be put into helping communities plant their own gardens, or establish community food projects with agriculture starter packs, tools and a supply of sustainable seed. There would still be a need for food parcels and soup kitchens, however, it would be for a much shorter period – until these gardens yield enough crops for people to eat or sell. The challenge would be to get people intimately involved to see the bigger picture so that they will actively participate in the solution.

One respondent indicated that it could be beneficial if, instead of individuals becoming solely dependent on food handouts, they could be encouraged to either assist with making up or handing out the parcels, as part of a remuneration. This would potentially give them a sense of responsibility and employment.

Other innovative ideas from respondents included teaching communities the Farming God’s Way principles, and getting small groups of people (like church cell groups) to adopt a ‘Food Mama’ and help her with vegetables to supply the sick or needy in her immediate area.

Becoming part of a changing force in the nation

If we only feed people, we will have to keep on doing just that, as the people will always remain hungry. If in addition to feeding them, we give them an opportunity to let their hearts and minds be transformed, train them and connect them to opportunities, they will become part of a changing force in the nation.

Let us be Jesus’ hands and feet, and allow Him to guide us towards creative solutions towards human thriving. Let’s update our thinking of how we can help someone create a life instead of only feeding them to keep them alive.

Neil Hart is the executive head of the Mergon Foundation. 
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