How to Spread It: Wendy Appelbaum

2013-05-12 06:00

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One of Africa’s wealthiest women, Wendy Appelbaum inherited money from her father, insurance and property tycoon Donald Gordon.

But by Appelbaum’s own credo, it’s not how much you have, it’s what you choose to do with it.

Today, the tough-talking entrepreneur who co-founded the first female-controlled company to list on the JSE (Wiphold) is a business success in her own right and a leading global philanthropist.

She is a trustee of one of the largest private charitable foundations in Africa, The Donald Gordon Foundation, as well as the Wendy Appelbaum Foundation, focusing on health, education and women. A wine producer, she lives “on top of a mountain” in Stellenbosch.

Q: There’s a growing trend among 21st century philanthropists to throw more than money at problems. What kind of philanthropist would you describe yourself as?

A: My philanthropy is strategic. Money alone doesn’t solve problems. I don’t believe in the kind of giving that can only be termed “charity.”

Charity is patronising and serves to make the giver feel good – often leaving the recipient humiliated.

Further, I believe in tackling major societal problems and funding initiatives that stand a chance of effecting real change and real improvement in people’s lives.

Focus is vital, as is an appreciation of the role that government has to play using taxpayers’ money.

I don’t believe in either paying a second voluntary tax, or assuming the role that government has to play with its infinite resources.

It is the philanthropist’s role to take chances and fund initiatives that may be riskier, but which may find solutions.

Q: You were instrumental in setting up the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (DGMC) and, in 2011, you opened the Wendy Appelbaum Institute for Women’s Health. What drives your interest in health, in particular women’s health?

A: Our interest in what became the DGMC stemmed from a concern that South Africa was no longer training the specialists, and superspecialists, necessary to maintain our excellent health system.

We understood why the government was no longer putting its resources into tertiary medicine and accepted that focus had been shifted to primary healthcare.

Rather than whinge about it, we could do something.

Eleven years ago we put an initial R120 million into finding a solution to the training issue, and we continue funding high-level training. Today the DGMC is the leading organ-transplant centre in Africa.

Obviously, good health is essential if one is to succeed in life.

It’s well established that women are the rocks upon whom our communities rest – all too often they are single-handedly mother, caregiver and breadwinner, but women get a raw deal medically.

Often, men have routine physical checkups as part of their employment relationships.

But women are lucky if they see a gynaecologist occasionally. We do have more than two moving parts.

I’m very concerned that South Africa has no cancer registry, and, consequently, the statistics are woefully inadequate.

There are a host of cancers specific to women and they are our leading cause of death.

We need research and collaboration to come together to find cures and solutions to preserve us. I’m deeply concerned.

Q: You grew up in an affluent home. Was there anything – or anyone – in your childhood that shaped the way you think about giving?

A: I was brought up in a home where there were deeply rooted values and a very strong set of ethical principles.

My father’s generosity knows no bounds, and he quoted Maimonides’ famous Eight Levels of Giving as being fundamentally important to the way we dealt with the responsibilities that accompany wealth.

The highest level of giving sees the “giver” make the recipient self-sufficient so that she no longer has to live by relying upon others.

The other “degrees” are:

» Giving anonymously to an unknown recipient via a third party;

» Giving anonymously to a known recipient;

» Giving publicly to an unknown recipient.

» Giving before being asked.

» Giving adequately after being asked.

» Giving willingly, but inadequately.

» Giving out of pity or unwillingly.

I was also influenced by Helen Suzman who taught me that giving doesn’t have to be measured in money, but can be in the donation of time, expertise, care and passion.

Everyone has something to give and I encourage people to identify their strengths and contribute what they can to the “greater good”.

In more recent times, Gloria Steinem has become a dear friend and mentor.

She has devoted most of her life to fight relentlessly for the rights of women.

Q: How does being a member of the Global Philanthropists’ Circle – an international network of wealthy families – influence the way you give?

A: They have helped me to sharpen the focus of my giving and to focus on sustainability in philanthropy.

Venture philanthropy, investment philanthropy, and social-impact investing are areas that I’m now beginning to explore.

In a dynamic and interconnected world, an international network of philanthropists enhances the impact of individuals, institutions and organisations working to solve complex problems innovatively.

It has also been important to be humbled by families and foundations with unimaginable wealth, but whose focus is on effecting positive change rather than on yachts, jets and jewels.

I’ve been heavily influenced by the Rockefeller family, who live a relatively modest lifestyle, but who have given so much to the world, including Rockefeller University, the University of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art to single out a few.

Q: You’ve said that “the more you have, the more responsibility you have to share it with those who don’t”. Is philanthropy only a duty, or does it also give you pleasure?

A: I’d say “reward and satisfaction” rather than pleasure, but yes, I do derive joy when I hear of a life saved, a specialist trained at the DGMC, or a rising star in business educated at Gordon Institute of Business Science.

I’ve recently had my heart swell with pride at the soprano Pretty Yende’s success in the great Opera Houses of the world – and our contribution there was small.

Q: Do you think there’s enough home-grown philanthropy going on in this country that’s not tied to CSI budgets?

A: No. We’ve been involved in giving both private and shareholders’ money away.

Believe me, it’s easier to spend shareholders’ money.

My dad started the Donald Gordon Foundation in 1971 – decades before social spending became mandatory.

We did it because it was the right thing to do – not to collect points on scorecards and satisfy politicians or civil servants.

It is essential that South African philanthropists assume a leadership role in these challenging times. We can consistently pressure all levels of government, business and even the international agencies to change old approaches that are evidently not working.

We have the independence that wealth brings and have the ability to be innovative and the freedom to speak our minds.

We are not dependent on the favour of government. We seek no tenders and nor do we answer to shareholders. Consequently, we have a duty to convene open debate.

Philanthropists and community-based organisations are uniquely positioned to bring players from all sectors together to discuss the controversial and challenging issues that the public and private sectors won’t address.

It is up to us to seek new responses to old problems.

Government and business tend to avoid change, but change is fundamental to our task – if we are to improve society and reduce suffering.

We need to work with people at the bottom of the rung – those I sometimes cynically refer to as “the victims of our benevolence”.

They are ultimately our constituency – the most marginalised, alienated, and disaffected members of our society. It is incumbent on us to use our privileged positions and resources to provide them with a voice and an advocate.

An important point that I’d like to make is that the tax regime needs to be changed to recognise, and encourage, philanthropy.

Q: Forbes once quoted you as saying that “charity is often about status rather than helping the less privileged”. How so?

A: Do you for one moment believe that the people buying tables at glamorous gala dinners are doing so because they care about the “cause”?

Many people give to causes that they don’t care about just to be seen to be doing the “right thing” by their peers.

With some thought, some care and some passion, they could make a meaningful difference to the lives of others while adding meaning to their own lives.

Q: If giving ultimately benefits people, not programmes, can you give us an example of one of your favourite giving moments?

A: Forgive my sounding like a stereotypical white liberal “madam”, but years ago I met the niece of my domestic worker.

She was an impressive young woman and had excelled in a poor rural school. Her dream was to become an engineer.

I volunteered to pay for her education if she found a place in a good university.

She did, and I paid. I only paid for one year though – not because she failed, but because she did so well that she won a full scholarship.

The rest is history.

» This series was developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.

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