Giving for results

The UAE's Big Heart Foundation disburses more than $4m each year to refugees in the Middle East and to children in Palestine. Director Mariam Al Hammadi describes how the foundation works to make every dollar count

Her Highness is a role model and her name brings great credibility to the work we do,” says Mariam Al Hammadi, director of the Big Heart Foundation (BHF). “More than that, she has a deep personal commitment to this work: when she goes into the field she doesn’t do it for show, she does it to learn. She helps us to better understand the needs of beneficiaries – and after all, that’s what really matters.”

The BHF is the creation and passion of Sheikha Jawaher bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the wife of Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, ruler of the UAE emirate of Sharjah. It disburses around AED10m ($2.7m) each year for the welfare of refugees in the Middle East, and a further AED5m in support of children in Palestine. It also funds programmes in Africa and South Asia, and conducts advocacy on behalf of refugees and underserved groups from Tanzania to Indonesia – causes adopted over the course of a busy decade during which Sheikha Jawaher has emerged as one of the region’s most engaged humanitarians.

The origins of the foundation date back to 2008, when Sheikha Jawaher launched Salam Ya Seghar (‘peace for the children’), a fundraising campaign to provide Palestinian children with healthcare, education, food security, water and sanitation and more. Her endorsement of Salam Ya Seghar, Al Hammadi says, reassured donors and persuaded them to reach into their pockets: in its inaugural year the campaign raised more than AED80m; four years later it would raise a further AED40m.

In 2013 Sheikha Jawaher was appointed as the first Eminent Advocate for Refugee Children by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and launched the Big Heart Campaign, which was based broadly on the Salam Ya Seghar model but which would direct funding towards those displaced by the conflict in Syria.

Two years later, having provided lifesaving medical services to more than 365,000 Syrian refugees and given more than 400,000 others vital food and financial aid, Sheikha Jawaher consolidated all her humanitarian efforts under the banner of the BHF. Al Hammadi, who joined the royal office in 2012, was the first employee to be recorded with the foundation, which today retains nine full-time staff members.

Salaries and administration costs, Al Hammadi explains, are drawn not from donations but from “other sources” within Sharjah.

“Her Highness has always said that the donors are giving money to help the children, so we should not deduct anything from the money we receive in charity, to cover our own costs.”

Of total annual donations to the BHF, around 60 per cent come from the private sector, with private individuals and government entities accounting for the remainder. If the foundation does not spend its budget in a single year, then between 50 and 60 per cent of the balance is invested in sharia-compliant vehicles to raise further funds.

“Whatever investments we enter into must be 100 per cent capital secure, so we’re sure that we won’t lose our money. We never take even a 1 per cent risk of losing anything, and that makes the donors comfortable with our approach – after all we are making their money go further,” says Al Hammadi.

Such invention is crucial at a time of limited budgets and ever-expanding humanitarian crises. Al Hammadi notes that donations to the foundation earmarked for Palestine have dropped by around 70 per cent, as media attention has shifted towards refugees from Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

“I don’t blame donors,” she says. “If, as a donor, I have supported the Palestinians for one or two or 10 years, and then there is a new crisis, I might focus on the other group because I have already spent years helping the Palestinian community. So that money is still coming into the foundation, but donors are asking us to channel it in another direction.”

Like many of its peers, the foundation witnessed a downturn in funding in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008, and is now feeling the effects of donor fatigue – as well as the oil price slump that has slowed economies across the region.

“I would expect that we [will see] a drop in donations,” she says. “[It is harder to raise money], especially now with the financial situation.”

Al Hammadi hopes that the issuing of a royal decree in May this year will enable the foundation to expand its donor base and bring in additional income.

“Now we will be able to welcome donations from people outside Sharjah and the UAE,” she says. “We will also be able to open an online page through which people can donate to us.”

In the meantime, Al Hammadi and her team will endeavour to select partners that will enable what money it does spend, to go further. The foundation has strict criteria by which it selects its partners, and proposals for funding are analysed rigorously. Once a project is launched, partners can expect to find themselves the subject of intense scrutiny.

“We tell our partners what we expect from them, and that’s quarterly reports with specific information including which performance objectives have been met in that quarter, and what objectives will be achieved in the next,” explains Al Hammadi.

“We compare the quarterly reports against the proposals we received before launching the project, and then assess whether our targets are being met or not,” she continues. “We also work with third parties who compile their own assessments, and we can then match those against the reports we receive from our partners, to make sure that everyone agrees on what targets are being met.”

The foundation also engages directly with beneficiaries, either face-to-face or via video conferencing, to gather feedback and build a complete picture of a project’s effectiveness. Funding is released in stages and the payment of each tranche is dependent upon results. “If the project is succeeding then I’ll send you the next instalment. Otherwise you won’t get it,” says Al Hammadi.

So far, she adds, the time the foundation spends assessing potential partners and projects, has proved time well spent.

“There have been no disappointments because we try our best to select the right partner and we are very clear before we sign any agreement,” she says.

UNHCR is the foundation’s partner of choice for the majority of its work with Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

“UNHCR has been in the field for decades and they know more about the situation than anybody,” says Al Hammadi. “It’s not right to launch or support projects just for the sake of being able to tell people that you have done it. You have to find the right project and implement it in the right way. Large organisations such as UNHCR have the knowledge and experience to guide in those decisions.”

Between 2013 and 2016 BHF directed more than AED70m through UNHCR towards education, healthcare, sanitation, protection and emergency relief for refugees. More than 650,000 refugees have benefitted from BHF-funded programmes, which run from basic needs to cash assistance, psychosocial support and WASH programmes.

A BHF-supported healthcare clinic at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan has so far treated more than 48,000 patients.

“We built the clinic and we have covered the running costs for the past four years,” says Al Hammadi. “We’re willing to cover the costs for the next few years, too, because we know that the services are very important.”

The foundation’s work in Palestine, meanwhile, employs global bodies such as the World Food Programme, but also counts on the efforts of a wide number of other NGOs. Among its partners are Oxfam, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, MSF, and SOS Children’s Villages – the latter of which channelled $744,000 of BHF cash into the care, protection, and education of children in Gaza in the first six months of 2017. Over the period 2013 to 2016, BHF spent close to AED25m on programmes in Palestine, benefitting more than 184,000 people.

“Someone is always waiting for our support, and someone is always waiting for us to make a difference in his or her life.”All partners, large and small, are scrutinised on their operations as well as their impact. “We have been clear from the beginning that no more than 7 per cent of the money that we give can be spent on admin fees,” explains Al Hammadi.

“When smaller organisations are unable to fulfil the criteria that we have, for example in terms of the reporting schedule, or admin costs, then larger organisations can help them out with training and implementation.”

The wide scope of BHF operations – as well as the hands-on nature of Sheikha Jawaher’s leadership – demands dedication at all levels of the foundation. Long hours and working weekends are common and met without complaint.

“Someone is always waiting for our support, and someone is always waiting for us to make a difference in his or her life,” says Al Hammadi. “That thought pushes us to do more, to do everything we possibly can.”