Commercial thinking key to future of MidEast charities, says foundation chief

The CEO of one of the UAE’s most prominent philanthropic organisations has warned that Middle East charities may need to increase their commercial efficiencies if they are to thrive

Increased competition for funding coupled with a broader shift towards strategic giving among donors may encourage more non-profits to rethink their operating models, said Clare Woodcraft, CEO of the Abu Dhabi-based Emirates Foundation.

“In terms of philanthropic capital, development finance and even CSR, there is a real need to revisit the way we do things,” Woodcraft told Philanthropy Age. “The sector needs to look at how efficiently it’s creating value, to look at the absolute return on every single dollar that’s invested.

“This is something that in a commercial financial environment. We need to be more business-like [and apply] the efficiency of a commercial entity and applying that to addressing social problems. The whole of the sector absolutely needs to undergo serious rethinking in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.”

Woodcraft, speaking ahead of the Emirate Foundation’s annual summit in Abu Dhabi next week, said that many of the region’s philanthropic organisations were embracing the principles of catalytic philanthropy, albeit at a slower pace than their global peers.

“There is a slow but inevitable shift globally, and I think that is being replicated in the region,” she said. “Globally now you see foundations talking about financial instruments other than grants, about mission-related investments, and social enterprises, and I see that also in Middle East, although it’s perhaps not quite as vociferous as it is in other parts of the world.”

Woodcraft has been CEO of the Emirates Foundation, which was established by the government of Abu Dhabi and focuses on improving the welfare of youth in the UAE, since 2011. A former deputy director of the Shell Foundation, the sustainable development arm of oil major Royal Dutch Shell, she said organisations must focus on delivering greater transparency and accountability.

“There has for too long been a tendency to talk about input and not output: how much a foundation spends, how many grants they issue, how many projects they are supporting and how many different areas they are focused on, rather than the results of that investment,” she said.

“These are very business-based terms and people talk about taking a very business-based approach to philanthropy, but that doesn’t mean that suddenly you want to turn the philanthropic sector into a commercial entity,” she added. “What it means is that there is a call for philanthropic funds to be spent more wisely and more systematically so that they create long-term change, and in a fashion by which we learn.”

The Emirates Foundation’s annual summit takes place at Jumeirah Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi on November 12th and 13th. The theme ‘Philanthropy in Transition’ will be addressed by speakers including Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister of Development and International Cooperation, and Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, managing director of the Emirates Foundation.