Advocates for change

Princess Banderi bint Abdulrahman AlFaisal is the director general of Saudi Arabia’s King Khalid Foundation. In an exclusive interview, she talks failures, tackling youth unemployment and the foundation’s role in the changing shape of philanthropy in the GCC’s wealthiest economy.

Saudi Arabia is no stranger to large-scale largesse. Both the government and individual donors give generously and frequently. Yet the infrastructure of giving – from foundations to the nonprofits on the ground – has struggled to play in the same league.

The Riyadh-based King Khalid Foundation (KKF) is one agency seeking to redress the balance. Founded in 2001, KKF aims to help cultivate and scale the country’s fledgling nonprofit sector to meet national challenges and lobby for socioeconomic change. And while there is still much work to be done, says director general Princess Banderi bint Abdulrahman AlFaisal, change is underway.

Q. KKF has a broad mandate. How do you gauge your success?
We set out to change the face of philanthropy in Saudi Arabia, and if you look at where the sector was 10 years ago, it is enormously different today. When we began even the term ‘nonprofit sector’ was unknown. About four years ago, in the second of our annual development debates, we talked about the underrepresentation of – and lack of consultation with – the nonprofit sector in the kingdom’s National Development Agenda. The Ministry of Planning was sceptical, but over time we convinced them to include us in discussions. 

Today, the nonprofit sector is front and centre in the government’s economic plan, Vision 2030, and we’ve been asked to contribute to policy planning. The nonprofit sector currently accounts for less than 1 per cent of GDP and the goal is to increase that to 5 per cent by 2030. So the government has absolutely bought in to the work we are doing.

Some elements of our work are difficult to measure. If we are working on youth employment, for example, gauging impact is easy: we can track how many candidates got jobs and stayed in those jobs. Other aspects of our work are less tangible, but I’ve no doubt KKF has played a key role in driving change in our industry.

Q. How has KKF’s own approach changed since its inception? 
We’ve learned through trial and error. The foundation started as a grantmaking organisation – initially we wanted to work with local partners in rural communities on development projects. We failed miserably; we were talking different languages. KKF talked about sustainability and impact, while the nonprofits focused on cash handouts and charity. As a result, we stopped all grant activity and for the next two years focused on building the capacity of local NGOs and helping to change mindsets. 

That was 10 years ago. We gradually reintroduced grants, which today comprise more and more of what we do - in just two days this week, we’ve signed 20. Grants are typically between SR100,000 (about $26,500) and SR750,000, but ultimately it’s about the quality of the grants rather than their size. Many local organisations don’t know how to apply for a grant, draw up an action plan or a budget, or report back. We want them to develop those skills and will help them to do so. We believe our approach means nonprofits will be better prepared to fundraise in future. 

I have changed a lot, too. My father challenged me to be ambitious and give back, but while I certainly wanted to be involved with the foundation, I didn’t want to be the boss – I was slightly bullied into taking it on. Over the years, I’ve learned more from our failures than our successes.

I’ve also learned that leaving your ego at the door, as a person or as an organisation, goes a long way to developing successful partnerships.

“Philanthropy is a sticking plaster. Our impact will be limited as long as the education system is not doing what it should.”

Q. Is there a particular grantee or project you are proud of?
Many: although there’s one in particular, which came in response to the high rate of school dropouts in Saudi’s Eastern Province. A nonprofit there requested a grant to address the problem, and it emerged that the parents’ reading level was poor, so they were unable to help their children with schoolwork. As a result, they began lagging behind their classmates and eventually became embarrassed and dropped out.

We helped to implement an after-school programme to assist students with their reading and writing skills. It was very simple, but it was lifechanging for the students and their families. These kinds of things make it all worthwhile.

Q. Youth unemployment stands at 11 per cent. How can the country move the needle on jobs for young Saudis?
This is the topic of the day. It’s a frequent discussion for us, because we have a youth unemployment programme that trains young Saudis, with employment as the goal. However, nobody is hiring in the current economic climate, which opens up a whole new challenge and we’re not entirely sure how to address it. 

Broadly speaking, our impact as a foundation will be limited as long as the country’s education system is not doing what it should. Philanthropy is a sticking plaster that stops the bleeding, but it does not help the patient. Saudi Arabia’s education system is the elephant in the room – everyone knows there is a problem, but nobody seems able to fix it. It is beyond what we can do as a sector. 

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More training is being provided to Saudi youth to reduce unemployment. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images.

Q. What do you feel is needed to help young Saudis compete in the workplace?
Running the ‘Our Youth, Our Future’ project, a three-year programme with the Human Resource Development Fund, has been eye-opening. Attitude is the missing piece of the puzzle among young people. Having the right soft skills, attitude and work ethic is crucial. A qualification is one thing but desire, passion and interest are another. When jobs are scarce these are the skills that will help youth in their personal and professional lives. 

But the right attitude is also necessary among employers. We’ve seen all sides exploit the system intended to promote Saudisation [getting more Saudi nationals into the workforce]: firms with so-called job openings, training institutions’ lacklustre involvement, and young people happy to take the training but not the job. It’s a box-ticking exercise all round. I hope the situation will change, but it is still a significant challenge.

Q. Are more young Saudis looking to the third sector for a career?
We are certainly trying to get young people excited about the nonprofit sector. Last year, we teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to fund Shaghaf, the Saudi Philanthropic Fellowship Programme. The pilot run has an intake of 10 young Saudis who will do a two-year placement with an NGO in Saudi Arabia, a summer course at New York’s Columbia University and an internship at the Gates Foundation.

We hope graduates will see the nonprofit sector as one with legitimate career prospects, and gain an affinity for philanthropy. Hopefully they’ll be its ambassadors in whatever they choose to do.

Q. Is Saudi philanthropy evolving?
Philanthropy has become more fashionable globally, and we see this trend in the kingdom, too. Over the last five years, more and more family businesses and businessmen in Saudi Arabia have created foundations, becoming role models in turn. New regulations have also made it easier to open a philanthropic organisation.

Still more needs to be done. Saudis are extremely generous, yet very little giving is channelled through institutions, even local ones, with people preferring to give directly to beneficiaries. The philanthropic sector needs to establish more trust among wealthy and middle class donors. 

The notion of a philanthropist is also changing. The first three charities registered in the kingdom were nonprofits launched by women from the country’s royalty or elite. We’re starting to see this evolve; today it is more about the cause than where you come from.

Finally, the younger generation is pushing the concept of strategic giving. There is a growing awareness that giving directly does not necessarily benefit the most needy or most deserving. Young people want to see tangible results, and we are starting to see the fruits of this in family businesses.

Q. Where do you believe KKF can have the most impact?
The foundation has a unit focused on evidence-based policymaking that works to influence decision-makers. The plan is to increase that aspect of our work.

Our experience shows the impact we can have. In 2013, we pushed for a Women and Child Abuse Prevention Law, which was subsequently adopted and passed by the government. It was the first time a nonprofit had been involved in developing policy. 

Rather then identifying areas we think need to be addressed and saying: “You need to fix that,” we try to focus on giving policymakers ideas. It is very easy to complain about problems, but putting the hard graft in towards finding solutions is the fun part. I hope that will be part of our legacy. — PA

Editor's note: In March 2019, Princess Banderi tragically passed away.