When Richard Mason (35) wrote his first bestselling novel, The Drowning People, at age 21, he put his royalties to work helping disadvantaged children access quality education.
The Kay Mason Foundation (KMF), named after his late sister, awards bespoke scholarships to hand-picked “leaders of tomorrow”.
The uniqueness of this initiative rests on the foundation’s personal relationship with each child and their parents, and in providing not only financial support, but also emotional and academic help, throughout their school career.
South African-born Mason lives between New York, Glasgow, Cape Town and, thanks to another philanthropy project currently under way in the Eastern Cape, “a tent in rural South Africa”.
Q: If philanthropy can start with a random act of kindness, what was the “aha!” moment that led you to set up the The KMF?
A: I was in the shower one day, thinking about how to share some of the success I’d had. I realised that there are many good people who want to make a difference in the world, but aren’t sure where to put their money. I decided to set up a structure that would allow anyone, with anything to give, to make a real, immediate difference in a child’s life.
Q: You don’t just throw money at bright kids, but recognise that a decent education includes stability, family support and life skills. Can you give us an example?
A: We can’t always give the kids we support stability, because family structures aren’t always stable, but we can give them committed love and care. We make investments in people for the long haul, even when their ride is rough.
We recognise it can be tough to make the transition to a good school. We ask for commitment and effort from our scholars. In return, we give them the opportunities to get the skills they need to take advantage of the opportunity.
Q: You make a point of knowing each KMF child by name. Can you tell us more about one of the scholarship kids you’ve met?
A: There are so many amazing stories I could tell! I’ll start with Siyamthemba Mrawli, the first boy I picked to be a KMF scholar.
Siya went to Sacs (SA College Schools). He broke the school record for (getting into) fights in his first year. Didn’t work very hard. I always knew he had potential, and we spent a lot of time together.
I was only a few years older than him. I had to play bad cop pretty often in the beginning, but he ended up as a prefect at Sacs. He didn’t apply in time for a university scholarship, so missed out. After he’d spent two years working, living in a township, seeing me regularly when I was in South Africa, he suddenly understood that only one person could change his life: him. He had a total attitude change.
He went to the University of Cape Town on a scholarship. He worked his butt off. Now he’s at business school in London.
My bet is that he’s going to be a hugely successful, job-generating entrepreneur. Exactly the kind of person South Africa needs.
Q: KMF scholars must agree to become volunteers in their communities. How so?
A: It’s not so much a question of “must”, though it is a formal requirement. We pick young people who want to make a difference.
So many kids do, and we work to keep their idealism alive and give them the skills to make a practical contribution in South Africa’s future. Our current grads include doctors, teachers, social workers, environmental scientists and budding journalists.
Q: In 2009, you bought 36 hectares of land in the Eastern Cape and set up the Lulutho Trust. What happens there?
A: I didn’t buy it. You can’t buy tribal land. The Community of Mthwaku and the KMF partnered to create the Lulutho Trust.
Lulutho means Opportunity in isiXhosa. The chief of Mthwaku and his community put in 36 hectares of deforested ground. The KMF put up the funds for the first phase of a campus – ecofriendly accommodation for 25; classrooms; solar energy; kitchen; offices; and a teaching garden.
The Hans Hoheisen Trust has just contributed the largest solar-powered water irrigation system in the Eastern Cape – and we hope government will pay for pipes to provide clean drinking water to five surrounding villages. Pick n Pay is helping plant a new forest – we’re currently at 500 trees and counting.
Lulutho is a place where people can go to get practical skills that can change their lives. Other NGOs can run programs from Lulutho without investing in expensive infrastructure. We teach farming and will later branch out to other businesses.
It’s also a place where South African teenagers of all races and classes can come together, see the problems facing the rural poor, experience the blazing stars at night, and start dreaming together about how we can build a great nation.
Q: Do you ever get together with other philanthropists and talk about what you do – or might do – together?
A: I do. I’m a member of the Private Philanthropy Circle, run by Inyathelo and the unbelievably amazing Amanda Bloch. Amanda single-handedly brings many South African philanthropists together, and great partnerships emerge – like ours with the Hans Hoheisen Trust.
In the US, I often go to meetings of Synergos, which works to bring philanthropists together on an international level. I’ve met some great people that way.
I’m a passionate believer in cooperation. There’s no need to replicate infrastructure costs with thousands of tiny organisations. If you want to make a difference, give money to an organisation that already exists and get your hands dirty.
Find out what their challenges are. What can you do to make things better? Get involved yourself. Give your talents and time, and you’ll taste true joy.
Q: Book writing is a pretty solitary pursuit. How does your “day job” fit with your philanthropy work?
A: I sometimes feel my charity work is my full-time job, and my writing has to fit around it. I need a lot of time alone, but I also love people. Being with the kids is always brilliant. Writing long grant applications is less fun – but it’s got to be done.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
A: The KMF is getting ready to launch our Generation 2018 Campaign. Generation 2018 is a nonprofit fund dedicated to building a nation through investing in its young people. The current KMF scholars will carve a future for the next generation, by raising funds.
The students will be hosting dinners and will invite potential investors who will get a chance to make an investment in a scholar’s life as well as in the future of our country. We can truly build this dream together and we are very excited about this campaign.
» This series was developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.