Rethinking philanthropy

To maximise the impact of your giving, think like an entrepreneur, says Saudi businessman and philanthropist Amr Al-Dabbagh

As the chairman and CEO of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Dabbagh Group - and a former governor of the kingdom's investment authority - Amr Al-Dabbagh knows a thing or two about business. Now, he is bringing his commercial and entrepreneurial expertise to bear on philanthropy. As the founder of Stars Foundation, Al-Dabbagh aims to impact the lives of 20 million children by 2020, while Philanthropy University – a free, online initiative that targets nonprofit leaders around the world – seeks to reach 100 million people in the same period. In this interview, Al-Dabbagh shares his thoughts on strategic philanthropy, creating a legacy, and why achieving outsized results requires a new way of giving.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What motivates your philanthropy?

My parents saw giving as being central to everyday life: they were true humanitarians. My father put giving at the heart of the family business – each dollar distributed as a dividend, was matched by a dollar given in philanthropy. This kind of philanthropy is not just sustainable through the generations, but gives a sense of participation and accountability to every family member, in a different way to the more traditional endowment model. My mother showed us that no act of giving is too insignificant and that giving is not only restricted to financial support but also extends to love, time, care, and showing kindness and practicing compassion. They remain my biggest motivation and I hope that I can impart this philosophy to my own children and family. 

You’ve coined the phrase ‘omnipreneurship’ to explain your approach to life. What does that mean?

If we want to change the world, we need an approach that integrates all that we care about. Omnipreneurship is an organised approach to living a life of meaning. It comprises three principles – giving, earning and sustaining - five values, and 10 golden rules, which apply whether you are operating in business, public or nonprofit sectors. An omnipreneur takes an entrepreneurial approach to every aspect of life: in work, family, finances and more.

I’ve test-driven this approach across various disciplines and seen it succeed in myriad ways. I am a strong believer in the idea that there are many paths to success, and omnipreneurship is what has worked for my colleagues and I. 

"Like many in the sector, we see the question of impact measurement as a challenge to be tackled head-on"How would this apply within philanthropy?

Taking an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy means focusing on strategic giving that is driven by scale, impact, sustainability, cost-effectiveness and innovation. Through this lens, we are forced to refine our thinking and rely on expertise that is outside our core competency for measurable impact. Collaborative models and innovative thinking sit at the heart of strategic philanthropy.

How do you gauge the impact of your giving?

Like many in the sector, we see the question of impact measurement as a challenge to be tackled head-on. Through giving initiatives, the Al-Dabbagh Group aims to impact the lives of 100 million people by 2020, and we believe in accountability. We’ve developed a formula to gauge impact, but we are constantly refining it. The aim of the global community is to build a better and more equitable world: if we are making progress towards that goal, then our work is having an impact.

Philanthropy University offers free online education to nonprofit leaders around the world. How is technology changing the social sector?

Harnessing the power of technology can deliver massive reach and impact. Philanthropy University, which sits at the crossroads of technology and strategic giving, is a case in point. In the month after its launch in 2015, we attracted more than 200,000 students from 190 countries. This sort of reach is only made possible through technology, and it’s an example of what an omnipreneurial mindset can produce. It’s about going beyond the limits of conventional philanthropy.

"Getting philanthropy right is more challenging than any other discipline I’ve been involved with"The Arab world today is home to some of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. Is the private sector doing enough to help provide solutions?

We live and work in a part of the world where giving is central to daily life: especially as it relates to our cultural norms and faith-based activities like zakat. That said, I think the entire global business community can do more to both support both local communities, and help improve the state of the world by effective collaborations, rigorous practice and a shared sense of responsibility to people and the planet. As the late Muhammad Ali once said: “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” and this applies across the board.

What has surprised you in your philanthropic journey?

Something that surprises me every day is the enormous reserves of passion we are able to tap into to make these massive goals come to life. We are acutely aware that we rely on the dedication of countless actors to bring us closer to our finish line. On a more macro level, it is the trial and error involved in finding the strategic path that leads towards maximum impact. It’s a reflex to think that philanthropy should be straightforward but the reality is more complex. It requires an enormous amount of collaboration across sectors. Getting philanthropy right is more challenging than any other discipline I’ve been involved with, but the potential rewards are immeasurable. 

Is there any advice you would give to fledgling philanthropists?

To be hugely ambitious and to match that with extreme diligence and humility. It is not about our own legacy and what we leave behind, it is about truly contributing something useful and effective to the world. They should think about philanthropy strategically and consider the impact they are making by their giving and the means to measure it. Treat it like an investment – like the highest return on the investment. 

Mostly, I would say that redefining what it is to be a philanthropist is of utmost importance. The ancient Greek definition of philanthropy is the love of humanity: and hence, we are all philanthropists and must identify that way to see every act as a potential act of giving.