Breaking out

Led by long-time philanthropists Khaled and Olfat Juffali, a small circle of Saudi families is forging a new model for Gulf giving.

It came down to this: we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Khaled Juffali, a Saudi philanthropist and CEO of EA Juffali & Brothers Co, the conglomerate owned by his family. “I’ve always felt that collaboration with the right people gives you a better result than going it alone. And in this case, I really think it has.”

Juffali is outlining the thinking behind Shefa Fund, the Saudi Arabia-based giving circle he cofounded in 2013 with his wife, Olfat, backed by a cohort of close friends. Working hand-in-glove with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, its goal is to channel money so it has the greatest long-term impact on pressing global health issues. “Giving is easy,” explains Olfat Juffali, “but giving well is an art.”

In four short years, Shefa has parlayed its members’ financial clout – and the Gates Foundation’s expertise – into more than $9m worth of grants, helping fund the fight against diseases ranging from polio, to malaria and meningitis A.

Having exhausted its first tranche of funding, a second round of fundraising is planned for this year, with a target goal of $20m. “There are many people our age who want to give, but don’t know how or where to direct their money,” says Olfat. “They like the Shefa story, and they like what we’re doing – they’re keen to support it. Like us, they want to learn how best to give.”

Giving circles are not a new trend. Born in the US, they exist around the world, ranging in size from informal supper clubs to large-scale nonprofits with annual fees and minimum donation requirements. Givers chip in with money, swap ideas, strategies and successes, and determine together which nonprofits to support. But in the GCC, where philanthropy is still dominated by individual, often opaque, foundations, Shefa Fund represents a bold streak of innovation. 

The fund grew out of an off-the-cuff remark to Olfat, who was mulling the launch of her own charity, focusing on health and education. An advisor suggested she could instead fold her funding into the Gates Foundation, the world’s largest philanthropy, to deploy through its hive of programmes and partners.

It was an idea that led to a lunch with Bill Gates in Saudi Arabia – hosted by the Juffalis and attended by a handful of their friends – and one that ended with a clutch of pledges and a newly inked blueprint for giving. “We made the decision that day to put our hands with the Gates Foundation and go with them on this journey,” says Olfat. “We were impressed.”

“We see first-hand the impact our money is making, and that’s a huge encouragement for all of us.”

Khaled Juffali, co-founder, Shefa Fund.

What followed has been almost a crash course in strategic philanthropy: giving that thinks big, has a clear goal, and delivers an outsized benefit for the dollars invested. Most big-ticket philanthropists struggle up a learning curve, with the wastage and poor investments that go with it. Shefa members, buoyed by trips into the field and exposure to global health experts, have fast-tracked theirs.

Today, using pooled funds, the 19-person group doles out grants to catalysing projects in healthcare shortlisted by the Gates Foundation. The headline idea is to offset the market failure affecting poor consumers of healthcare, by deploying money on their behalf to open up access to drugs and treatment.

Done right, the Juffalis hope it will better the lives of millions of people across the Middle East and Africa. 

“It’s eye opening: the more you learn – especially during the trips – the more you want to help,” says Khaled. He recalls watching a line of children outside a free health clinic in Tanzania, queuing patiently in the heat for vaccinations their families could not otherwise afford.

“We see first-hand the impact our money is making, and that’s a huge encouragement for all of us. It brings our philanthropy to life."

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The Shefa Fund has given more than $9m in grants to help tackle diseases such as polio, and malaria. Bed nets offer vital protection against the mosquito-borne disease.

Among its grants, Shefa Fund has given $3.3m to the global fight to eradicate polio, $2.5m towards eliminating meningitis A, a disease which – before the rollout of a cheap vaccine in 2011 – erupted in regular epidemics in Africa, and invested $2.4m in ending the ravages of neglected tropical diseases. Its grants have reached some 16 million people in 15 countries – “a phenomenal number,” says Olfat – ranging from the Central African Republic and Sudan, to neighbouring Arab states Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. 

In 2014, the group made its first award to a project in Saudi Arabia: a $1.2m push to sharpen the diagnosis and treatment of cutaneous leishmaniasis. A parasitic disease transmitted by tiny sandflies, leishmaniasis is not fatal, but its disfiguring lesions cause untold misery.

The condition stalks the Middle East, affecting thousands each year, but rarely makes it on to the radar of aid donors. Shefa Fund’s grant – funding research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine – has now turbocharged the response.

The end goal is to wipe out leishmaniasis in Saudi Arabia. The tools developed can then be used to attack the disease in the wider region, where conflict and mass displacement has sped its spread. 

“Being able to eliminate leishmaniasis here; that would be something incredible. It would truly be an example of using money to the greatest effect,” says Olfat. 

In the GCC, Shefa Fund is an outlier. Its model blends the best of Islamic generosity with outside expertise, encouraging proactive – not impulsive – philanthropy. Members, by virtue of collective action, are constantly learning. Still, when pitched against more status-seeking ways of giving, it’s not always an easy sell. 

“In our part of the world, everyone wants to do his or her own thing: start an NGO or foundation. They want to put their name to something,” explains Khaled. “Shefa Fund is a change in the methodology of giving. But, as private philanthropists, we should be agile.”

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Khaled and Olfat Juffali, along with other Shefa Fund members, take regular field trips to better understand the impact of their giving on public health challenges. Photo: supplied.

This also means reapproaching the Islamic tenet that counsels discretion in charity, to ‘give with the right, but don’t let the left hand know.’ “Giving is seen as a private matter, which makes it difficult to share ideas and collaborate,” he adds.

In this, the Juffalis have led from the front. They have championed the fund within their own influential network, hosting dinners and then “very elegantly bombarding” friends with evidence of its impact. The Gates Foundation name has also served as a calling card, helping to combat any rumblings about how money may be channelled by global NGOs.

Both, says Olfat, are keen to see the vehicle duplicated elsewhere in the GCC, and to swell Shefa’s donor base among the next generation.

“All our children come along on field trips with us; it’s very important to us to pass that along. It’s a learning journey for whole family,” she explains.

It’s an added bonus that Shefa Fund’s model plays well among data-hungry millennials. “That’s a big change within the younger generation: whether statistically, or geographically, they want to see the numbers, and know the money is being used as it should be," she says.

Another portend of change is the growing spotlight on philanthropy among Gulf governments. In Saudi Arabia, the trade bloc’s wealthiest state, the national economic plan calls for the nonprofit sector to generate 5 per cent of GDP by 2030. In an era of plunging public spending, philanthropy is taking on a heightened role – and one that may demand a radical rethink of how money is allocated and tracked. 

The Juffalis are doing their part to spark change. In 2014, the couple invested in an experiential philanthropy programme at Northeastern University, US. The course, which sees students make dollar grants to nonprofits, aims to expose pupils to the complexities behind crafting and funding strategies for effective social change.

Now, orchestrated by the Juffalis, a version of it is being taught in Riyadh’s Prince Sultan University, to school young Saudis in the art of strategic philanthropy. If all goes well, they hope to see it roll out in universities across the country: the art of effective giving, woven into Saudi’s national curriculum.

“Philanthropy does not distinguish by race, religion or region, it all goes under one banner,” says Khaled. “This is the future: teaching young people around the world how to give well, and how to collaborate and learn from each other.” – PA