Lorenzo Davids is the CEO of the Development Impact Fund and The Justice Fund, and the former CEO of Community Chest South Africa.  

Speaking at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference in May 2022, Davids said that, while those in the sector may believe that development is working, when he asks average South Africans, their response is a resounding “no”. Davids said: “So much of our work is done on the fact that we feel good about it. And that’s a drug. That’s the nonsense of the NGO (non-governmental organisation) space.”  

Psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote, in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth, that “each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity”. The problem with this mission, Davids argued, is that we keep inserting ourselves into the narrative. “We don’t allow the narrative to grow beyond us – we want to be part of the story. We need to step back.”  

The crisis to find the soul of the nation  

Davids’ regular train journeys in the Western Cape, which he talks about on Twitter, have launched a movement that has attracted media coverage from the BBC to Financial Mail and eNCA. “At the heart of this movement is the fact that we’ve lost the art of conversation,” says Davids. Development programmes and projects, he says, focus on getting people’s membership, but have lost the true art of dialogue.   

Davids says that South Africa is struggling with the crisis to find the soul of the nation. “How do we get people to understand that we are a great land – not this mean, angry, violent society that we are portrayed as?” he asked. “Who is going to tell the story of our national prosperity, and build national pride that makes us feel safe and proud, and makes our children want to grow old here, with us?”  

Citing a presidential speech from March 2020, which promised a ‘great reset’ for society, Davids spoke about how problematic it is that this phrase has disappeared from our narrative and has been replaced with the prevailing urge to return to normal.  

“For most of the poor people I work with and visit across the country, it’s a far worse-off old normal. There is no new normal and, in development, it is important that we don’t get pulled into the rephrasing of these realities,” said Davids.  

Recommendations for futureproofing development: 

  • Be willing to stand at the very point of your greatest success and ask: “What must we change to be better?”  
  • Your greatest impact is related to your ability to solve complex problems. 

Non-profit organisations (NPOs) must know the data about the contexts in which they work and connect their own work to that bigger picture.  

  • Move away from poverty reduction, poverty eradication and poverty elimination discourses, to wealth creation for poor people.
  • “Are we just happy to move people from the lower to the upper bounds of poverty?” Davids asked. “Who is having a discourse with poor people about wealth creation that empowers them to make their own decisions about their children’s schooling, the food that they eat and their healthcare?”
  • Move from interventions to solutions.

Davids recommended that one never asks for money from donors. “Talk about your commitment to navigating complex outcomes which will have high economic and social impact, and the donor will ask you how much you need,” said Davids. Three questions that donors think about when they engage you are:

1. What do you know?

2. Why does it matter?

3. What are you solving? 

  • Innovation, intelligence, integrity and collaboration are industry essentials and must outstrip compassion.  
  • Track the following five indices to help measure impact:  
  1. The Poverty Index  
  2. The Education Index 
  3. The Employment Index  
  4. The Health Index 
  5. The Food Security Index 

How does the impact that an organisation is making ripple through other sectors; how is it tracked and plotted; and what are the data changes after five years? 

  • Are your teams addressing the most pressing challenges that donors, communities and governments are facing? 
  • Donors and communities either endure you or enjoy you.

In just ten minutes, tell your story with data, conviction, intelligence and passion. Any documentation should only be used to support your intelligence and passion.  

  • Money is about relationships with your donors, with your community, and with your partners. 
  • Sustainability is a myth – we will always need donor money.  

It is a myth coined by the industry to get non-profit organisations  to ask for less. Risk-facing intelligence and creative vulnerability is the new way to proceed.  

  • Donor fatigue is a myth. What you’re running into is donor intelligence.  

Does your work move your organisational needle from passive consumers of donor funds to sector thought leaders, and then to influencers of donor funds? Is the sector evolving because of your leadership? 

  • Stop using the severity of need as the basis for funding. Use justice as a basis for funding.  

Davids says that, by 2025, justice will be the dominant filter for grantmaking with intelligent donors.  

By reconnecting with our communities through the reclamation of dialogue, Davids said he hoped that in time we will, as Steve Biko envisioned in I Write What I Like, “be in a position to bestow South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face”. 

  • Davids’s keynote address formed part of the ‘Futureproofing development’ theme, which was presented in partnership with MTN SA Foundation at the Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2022.

Watch the session