Jamaican Philanthropy: At Home and Abroad

By Meghan Lynn Schnarr

The “culture of philanthropy” as it is understood in Western culture is far less established in other parts of the world. Understandably, specific conditions of given societies naturally call forth different philanthropic traditions. As such, the history and current day giving traditions in Caribbean culture, specifically Jamaica, differ from a modern Western view of philanthropy. Understanding the role philanthropy plays in Jamaican culture is key in deciphering the country’s core values.

Different societal factors have affected the development of non-profit organizations, philanthropy and social welfare in Jamaica. Namely during colonial times when practices and traditions were brought over by the British and adopted by immigrants and slaves. During this time, the idea of philanthropy was associated primarily with religious charity and benevolence. The sole form of social welfare was fashioned after the British Poor Law which provided for the “deserving poor” such as children, the elderly and single mothers. The church was responsible for the establishment and operation of institutions such as convents, asylums and educational facilities. The Moravian church for example was birthed in Jamaica with the arrival of missionaries in 1754. More than 250 years later having established over 30 schools, the Moravian church has helped to not only build sound moral values, but has contributed significantly to the development of education in the country. Post slavery saw the development of the voluntary sector in Jamaica including the emergence of corporate involvement in philanthropic activity.

To this day, philanthropic activities in Jamaica remain focused on education and social development. Thalia Lyn, CEO of the Jamaican restaurant chain Island Grill and chairperson of the National Commercial Bank (NCB) Foundation, has been a tireless champion of philanthropy in Jamaica. Lyn strongly believes in the responsibility of the local corporate culture to be involved with philanthropic activity. Specifically, her commitment to the development of Jamaica relates to economic growth and job creation. According to Lyn, “…philanthropy could be the most relevant and immediately responsive solution to create jobs. Philanthropy underscores the basic rule of free enterprise – you must give in order to get.” Lyn continually challenges corporate America as well as the government to fully exercise their civic responsibilities and invest more in the people of Jamaica.

Examples of what local philanthropic efforts have produced can be found in charities such as The NCB Foundation, The YUTE Initiative and Mustard Seed Communities. The NCB Foundation, funded through a percentage of National Commercial Bank’s profit, has spent over $200 million in the past three years on engaging projects such as a cathedral restoration which taught tangible skills to people from an inner city community and created over 70 jobs enabling those communities to provide for their families. Youth Upliftment Through Employment (YUTE), is an intervention program led by the private sector, which targets the root causes of crime, violence and unemployment impacting youth giving them internship and entrepreneurial experience. And finally, Mustard Seed Communities cares for, feeds, clothes and provides shelter for Jamaica’s most vulnerable and is the largest NGO employer in the Caribbean. Through these examples, it is clear that the common element running through most facets of charitable giving in current day Jamaica is summed up by the Chinese parable: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

It is also important to note the significant impact made by Jamaicans living abroad who feel the need to give back to both their homeland as well as their new country of residence. One such example is Raymond Chang, recently named Outstanding Philanthropist 2010 by the Toronto Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, who has donated upwards of $200 million in Canada, Jamaica and abroad over the past few years. Born in Kingston Jamaica, he attended a high school run by Jesuit priests and interestingly, the common thread running through his philanthropy is an emphasis on education as well.

In summary, Jamaica is a multicultural society that in its infancy was influenced by a diverse array of cultural beliefs, religious values and social factors. Today, philanthropic activity in Jamaica centers around education and is being used as a tool to accelerate economic activity.

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