Giving purpose

Aster DM Foundation’s Alisha Moopen on partnerships, platforms, and mission-led philanthropy.

Alisha Moopen was encouraged from an early age to allocate a portion of her pocket money towards good causes. This is an approach that has stuck with her over the years and continues to shape her own philanthropic philosophy today.

“We were always nudged to do some something charitable, whether it was sponsoring children, or helping in some other way,” explains the chartered accountant, who now sets aside at least 10 percent of her adult salary each month to donate.

A large part of that early nudging came from Alisha’s father, Dr Azad Moopen, who visited the UAE in the 1980s to raise money for a mosque in his homeland of Kerala but ended up staying on to set up a clinic for blue-collar workers.

This grew into what is now Aster DM Healthcare, one of the region’s largest healthcare conglomerates present in eight countries and employing more than 20,000 people.

Today, Dr Moopen is one of Dubai’s best known Indian businessmen and a renowned philanthropist. His social work has been recognised by an honorary doctorate of philanthropy from Amity University, Dubai, the Padma Shri Award and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award from the government of India, and a string of other CSR accolades.

Although her father is clearly a key influence for Alisha, they didn’t always see eye to eye about philanthropy.

As a member of a conservative Muslim family, Alisha says she used to dislike the way he talked publicly about his donations. “My mother always said: ‘if your left hand gives, your right hand shouldn’t know about it’ so I confronted my father about this,” she recalls.

“He told me it was about creating a domino effect and that it was important that he, as someone people looked up to in the community, was helping to influence positive change.

“I understand that now and that has been a very solid grounding for me,” she tells Philanthropy Age.

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Aster Volunteers operates mobile health clinics offering treatment and screening to rural communities without access to health services. Photo: Noah Seelam/Getty Images.

Educated in Dubai (to where she moved from India when she was four years old), Alisha, the eldest of three sisters, completed a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) at the Ross Business School of the University of Michigan before then qualifying as an ICAS chartered accountant in Scotland.

After a six-year spell at Ernst and Young, she joined Aster DM Healthcare as a director in 2013 and now oversees the corporation’s strategic direction in her role as deputy managing director. She is also a trustee of the firm’s philanthropic arm, the Aster DM Foundation, and its offshoot, Aster Volunteers.

It’s a big portfolio, but one that Alisha - who in 2018 was named a World Economic Forum (WEF) Young Global Leader - clearly relishes, and she speaks passionately about both her corporate and philanthropic roles.

“It’s very difficult for me to disconnect between the business and the foundation because for us, it’s very mission led,” she explains. “We may be a public limited company with shareholders, but at our core, we are about delivering good quality and affordable healthcare.”

It was as Aster DM Healthcare expanded - from one clinic in Dubai back in 1987 to a regional leader operating across India and the GCC - that the family began to realise just how many people did not have access to basic healthcare.

This planted the seed for the Aster DM Foundation, which provides a range of initiatives, from health screening and free heart surgeries to disaster relief, mobile health vans, community ambulances, and first aid training.

Registered at both the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) as well as Dubai’s International Humanitarian City (IHC), Aster DM Foundation is one of the largest of its kind operating in the Gulf region.

To-date, more than a million people across India, Jordan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Yemen, and beyond have been impacted by its work.


"We really need to move from this hoarding mentality to a distribution mentality. We need to move away from wealth creation to wealth redistribution."

“Health is so important,” Alisha says. “If you don’t start off with the right health index, then it becomes so much harder to compete in this world. Giving people good health care is the starting point for us because it shapes so much of a person’s life.”

Marrying this focus on healthcare with community mobilisation, the foundation delivers much of its work through Aster Volunteers, a platform leveraging the skills and expertise of Aster DM Healthcare employees.

“We started off having our own doctors and nurses coming on board with Aster Volunteers, and then found we were also getting lots of external volunteers too,” Alisha explains.

“It came from that question about how we can use our core skillset to further the cause of healthcare, and now it’s now created this movement around giving,” she adds.

Through the Aster Volunteers scheme – which now has 40,000 people registered and is targeting 100,000 by 2025 - Alisha says the company has tried to create a place and a mechanism for people to come together to help.

“There are a lot of people out there who want to do good work, but sometimes they only have the intention but not the platform,” she says. “You need that platform so you can connect and have that credibility and for it to be easy for you to give, whether it is money or time.

“Time is so valuable. I always say to people, first dedicate your time and then you will experience the impact that you are having on the lives of the people you’re touching.”

“Successful philanthropy is about being able to create a multiplier effect.”

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Aster DM Foundation does not give grants, electing to do all its work itself. Nor does it fundraise – in part due to strict UAE charity laws. However, during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, Alisha says they were approached by several High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWIs) who wanted to support Aster’s response to the pandemic, which included staffing a telemedicine helpline in India and setting up field hospitals there to treat coronavirus patients.

“I think this is an area we want to explore,” she says, not ruling out the possibility of future collaboration with other donors. “Seeing how we can help other organisations develop their CSR goals and help them achieve their aims, I think that’s the sort of sustainable model we want to work towards.”

And she adds: “Collaboration and partnership are very important. It’s what we need to take philanthropy to the next level and be able to scale our impact. Successful philanthropy is about being able to create a multiplier effect.”

A member of the Dubai Chapter of the Young President’s Organisation (YPO),  in 2021, Alisha was named the Indian Businesswomen Council’s Global Indian Woman of the Year. She has also been identified by Forbes magazine as a Top Next Generation Indian Leader, and included in a recent Arabian Business’ list of the 50 most influential women in the Arab World.

Yet for all her accolades and titles, Alisha remains grounded and she says she has told her own children “not to expect a penny” and that they must stand on their own two feet and use the education she has given them.

“If you’re just letting people sit on wealth, then you’re not creating the leaders of tomorrow,” she explains. “When we hear that world’s richest 1 percent control almost half of the world’s wealth, I mean, that’s just not acceptable. We really need to move from this hoarding mentality to a distribution mentality. We need to move away from wealth creation to wealth redistribution.”

While she agrees the UAE does have a history and culture of generosity, she also feels many of her wealthy peers could be doing more. 

“Too many people still have this capitalist mentality. It’s all about ‘what can I do to make more for myself and my family’ but we should be asking: ‘what can I do for the rest of the world, so we can all rise together’?” - PA