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This article originally appeared in Chandler Foundation’s Social Investor magazine, the only peer-to-peer publication serving social innovators and leaders in global philanthropy. It was originally published under the title "Born an Optimist."
You grew up in apartheid South Africa — a system that robbed Black people of any opportunity to follow their dreams unless those dreams were down a mine shaft. How do you think about systems change in your own philanthropy?
When looking at issues or problems we sometimes think about how much agency is needed to change the situation, and we often find ourselves in a position where we don’t have the agency required. It can make you feel helpless. We think “only the government or a giant institution can address this.”
One of the greatest gifts that South Africa gave me was growing up in a country where Black people found ways to create agency in their communities. One of the best examples of that was what we called the “stokvel.”
Locally, women in the community created a system where they would put money together in a pot — almost like a tiny hedge fund.
Each month people would put in the same agreed upon amount, as low as US$10 per month. Each month the pot would go to a family within the stokvel who needed it the most and it would move around from family to family. Each month, a different family would receive a cash injection. It created momentum where families could spring forward. The extra cash injection didn’t come from a bank, didn’t have interest, didn’t create a further burden on the family, and it enabled them to leap forward in a way they normally couldn’t. The ability to receive a lump sum was something they created themselves.
When I look at it through that lens, I think of how to apply those tools in my foundation. My foundation alone cannot hold itself responsible for transforming an entire system, but we can contribute to changing the entire system. We’re trying to support every community to create a metaphoric stokvel for themselves. We want to create an environment where everyone — governments, the private sector, philanthropists, community leaders and members — is putting resources into refurbishing a school, everybody is contributing resources into running the school, or teacher training, etc. We want to harness that stokvel attitude to create systems change.
And my foundation partners with others who can address other parts of the system. That includes government and the private sector. We recognize that there are things that my foundation cannot control: policies, the socioeconomic environment, and timing. But our partners can influence these variables.
What we’re providing is that initial jump. We’re investing seed capital.
Billionaires and investors around the world understand the importance of seed capital to create a unicorn company, but for some reason that mentality doesn’t trickle down to people on the ground who have nothing. There’s an assumption that they just need to do things for themselves, but if we look at the biggest companies in the world — Microsoft, Tesla, or any other large tech company — none of them did it by themselves. We’re trying to be the jump, the stokvel, that moves each community.
What do you see as the most powerful forces determining the quantity and quality of prosperity in South Africa today? And what can social investors do to influence those forces?
Let’s think of a country as a bucket. Fundamentally, we’re trying to fill that bucket with as much water as possible. As the country moves through time, some of the water will evaporate, some will spill over, but the purpose is to have as much water in the bucket as possible at all times. Communities and people in the country are using that bucket for their livelihood, to drink water, wash their clothes, and to bathe in.
When looking at a country like South Africa, you realize that when the country became a democracy, those who had control of the bucket beforehand, didn’t leave much water in it, and those who have gained access to the bucket more recently too often use it for their own gain.
Therefore, my advice for social investors is split into two ideas.
First, what we need is an injection. We need to find people, institutions, and companies willing to come into the country to give these giant injections to create industries. Those industries become smaller buckets that can pour water into the bigger bucket.
Second, key players must pressure government into completely eradicating or at least dismantling corruption in the country.
People think corruption is only a South African problem, but we don’t talk about the American accounting company that is enabling corruption in South Africa, for example. Outside players are drilling holes in our bucket and then dismissing our country as a bucket full of holes.
To those with agency and power on the outside, take a stand against outside corporates who engage in corruption without ramifications.
Nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet. How do you address that as a philanthropist and support mechanisms for expanding upward mobility?
Understanding the value of compound interest and compound wealth is the key to understanding how to solve the problem. It’s far easier for a millionaire to make a second million than it is for someone with zero to make a million. In fact, it’s easier for someone to go from 1 to 10 million than it is for someone to go from zero to 100,000.
The apartheid government did a surprisingly good job of creating a self-sufficient country, a community. We can create a good version of what the apartheid was trying to do: a country that creates its own energy, its own exportable products. The difficulty is getting to a place where the country is unified by an idea of working towards the common good, of helping everyone become upwardly mobile.
What gives you hope?
If you set an alarm for the next day, you’re hoping that you wake up. We may think of hope as a choice, but fundamentally our human instinct of survival is an ingrained hope.
What gives me hope is that we’ve come this far, that we can see change. What gives me hope is that change, it’s not as far and impossible as it may seem.
What prompted you to found the Trevor Noah Foundation?
My mother has the ability to appreciate the world as it is. But also, the optimism to pursue the future she wants to exist. She passed that on to me. And that is the origin story of my foundation.
The foundation is something that I always wanted to start to contribute to what I feel is the greatest gift I ever received, learning. I love education. I love all the teachers that got me to where I am today. I love giving kids an opportunity. Education was the one thing my mother invested in because it’s honestly the seed from which everything grows.
In 2018, we began supporting one school in Johannesburg that catered to orphaned youth. When you meet school leaders and kids with the will and determination to achieve so much with minimal resources, you can’t help but be inspired.
With the generous support of donors, partners, and an amazing team in Johannesburg, we’ve renovated schools, trained young teachers in leadership, increased access to computers and digital skills, and provided much-needed career guidance. While we’re proud to have directly impacted the lives of over 500 teachers, 6,000 learners, and countless families within communities, there is still so much to do.
What attracted you to support YouthBuild?
Firstly, we’re tackling similar problems — education and youth leadership. They’re doing great work in the infrastructure and youth development space. Their partnerships with both the education and housing department, to train youth in construction skills while improving school facilities and building low-income housing is smart.
Plus, I have a soft spot in my heart for infrastructure. This is crazy but it is true: my favorite toy growing up was a brick. Genuinely.
I lived with my gran in Soweto, South Africa. Kids there did not have toys. We were poor. We played with bricks and pretended that they were toy cars. We needed a lot of imagination because our brick cars had no wheels. If we had wheels to attach to the bricks, we would have had the means for real toys. We just had bricks. And pushed them through the dirt pretending they were cars. And we smashed them into each other to see whose brick was the strongest and could withstand the impact.
In all seriousness, YouthBuild is operating in 300 communities around the U.S. and around the world. In Philadelphia they are teaching at-risk youth green construction, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they are providing training in the construction industry for youth in favelas. Their work is innovative and recently received a transformative gift from MacKenzie Scott, which tells me we chose great partners!