Başak Ersen and Barbara Ibrahim—The power of networks

“A younger generation of philanthorpists and civic activists are absolutely relying on social media, cell phones and other technologies to make sure their voices are amplified.”

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photo: Camden Conference 2013

Next March, key players from around the world will convene in Istanbul, Turkey, for WINGSForum 2014, The Power of Networks: Building Connected Global Philanthropy. WINGS Board Member Dr. Barbara Lethem Ibrahim is active on the WINGSForum committee.

Founding Director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, Ibrahim served as regional director for West Asia and North Africa of the Population Council for 14 years. Her book, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy, was published by American University in Cairo Press in 2008 and translated into Arabic. She earned a PhD in Sociology from Indiana University following an MA from the American University in Cairo. In 2003, Ibrahim received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies.

WINGS Managing Editor Chris de la Torre met with Ibrahim last month at the United Nations Development Programme Special Policy Dialogue in New York to forecast WINGSForum 2014 and talk briefly about how technology is driving change in the Middle East.

WINGS: In 2014 when we look back on a successful WINGSForum, what will we see?

BI: First of all, a successful WINGSForum is going to energise those who participate. We’re aiming to have about 200 WINGS members from all over the globe and it will have given them some new tools, some new ideas, and some new networking connections that will help them to do a better job of making their philanthropy effective, impactful and more globally linked—because, after all, the problems in the world today are global and therefore our solutions have to be global as well.

WINGS: You’re on the Board of Virtual Activism, an independent NGO that promotes social equality and human rights through research, education, training, and advocacy programs. Notable achievements of the organisation include pioneering the introduction of digital media and information technology in the MENA Region, and the organization provides training to nonprofits on the use of technologies in several Middle Eastern countries. How has technology changed philanthropy in the region, and how might it improve going forward?

BI: That’s a big question, obviously. But what I think I can tell you is that a younger generation of philanthorpists and civic activists are absolutely relying on social media, cell phones and other technologies to make sure their voices are amplified. I’ll give you an interesting example. In 2009 the Iranian young people were in the streets of Tehran. They felt that an election had been stolen from the people, and the government clamped down really hard. And part of that was to shut down the Internet and make it difficult for Iranians to know where to meet and where the next demonstration would be held.

Young Egyptians—also activists in their own society who had never met an Iranian (the two countries don’t have any kind of diplomatic relations)—but those young Egyptians used their cell phones to contact these activists and say, ‘Get your messages to us. We will use our Internet access to make sure that all of you know where to go and how to continue your movement’. So that was the beginning of I think our uses of social media in local contexts going regional, and that has very much continued over the Arab Spring… whereas… I’m sure you’ve read and heard what happened in Tunisia spread very quickly to other places, and it was largely because young people are so connected.

WINGS: During the UNDP Policy Dialogue you gave texting as an example of how crowdsourcing can work. Tell us about that.

BI: I think it’s fair to say that this is not a widespread phenomenon yet but it’s beginning, and cell phones have played a huge role in all of the Arab Spring uprisings, no doubt about it. Governments can shut down the Internet—not everyone is connected. But cell phone saturation is 90 percent. Egypt just passed a point last week I think in which we have more cell phones than citizens. So the cell phone is the next technology that will be used. And for philanthropy it is the speed and it’s the reach. So I send a message to my network of colleagues and then they send it to theirs and you have this multiplier effect. It was extremely useful in getting medical supplies and blood donations as needed.

I think you’ll see as these revolutions become institution-rebuilding efforts for their societies that it will also be used to crowdsource ordinary citizens that want to contribute and wouldn’t know how otherwise. You don’t have to be wealthy anymore to be a philanthropist that changes your society.

WINGS: In June, the Third Annual Takaful Conference on Arab Philanthropy and Civic Engagement in Tunis, Tunisia, will provide a unique opportunity to engage in a debate on the important transformations in civic engagement and philanthropy practices in the Arab region. You convened Takaful in 2011. As a member of the WINGSForum 2014 planning committee, are there any facets of Takaful or your work with gender or civic engagement in the Arab region that you’d like to see in Istanbul next March?

BI: You’ve just asked a huge question. I’ll limit myself to one answer. Takaful, as you just noted, is in its third annual incarnation. And what made it exciting in 2011 when we met in Amman, Jordan, was that it was really the first time that researchers—both established and young graduate students who were studying this space of citizen participation, philanthropy, giving back to one’s society—had a chance to interact with the practitioners—the foundation executives, the boards of directors. And it was just electric to see how much the mutual learning was taking place, how exciting it was. If you’re a young graduate student you just don’t often have a chance to meet the founder of a major corporate foundation, for example.

So we’ve tried to continue that energy that comes from real diversity in the room. I think what you’re going to find at WINGSForum 2014 is that we’ll be bringing young activists, we’ll be bringing seasoned philanthropists from all the regions of the world and we hope to get that same energy in the room.

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photo: Center for Social Innovation Turkey

“Although the challenges that every organisation faces differ from country to country, there are common obstacles we can collaborate on and turn into possible advantages.”

WINGSForum 2014 co-host, Third Sector Foundation of Turkey (TUSEV), was established in 1993 by Turkey’s leading CSOs and since has grown to a supporting network of more than 100 associations and foundations that share a vision of strengthening the legal, fiscal and operational infrastructure of the third (non-profit) sector in Turkey. Here TUSEV Deputy Secretary General Tevfik Başak Ersen shares his vision for the event and gives a brief look at philanthropy in the country.

WINGS: What would a successful WINGSForum look like? When we look back on a successful event, what will we see?

BE: We believe a successful WINGSForum would consist of a variety of elements which would lead the participants to leave the Forum with their expectations met.

One of the main characteristics of a WINGSForum is the creation of an environment in which participants gain the opportunity to learn about world wide trends in philanthropy. More importantly, participants from different parts of the World can learn about new models and learn about the practical ways in which they can apply these trends in their own organisations. Having the chance to discuss these models, their viability and challenges, would provide a significant experience for the philanthropy professionals.

Thus, a successful WINGSForum would create an informal platform in which partnerships and networking among collegues can be fostered. Although the challenges that every organisation faces differ from country to country, there are common obstacles we can collaborate on and turn them into possible advantages. Networking in this Forum would go beyond sharing business cards to actually creating long-term partnerships and dialogues.

WINGSForum is also about inspiring organisations or individuals about new ways of implementing philanthropic activities. Demonstrating the ways in which civil society organisations can implement grant-making programs or apply new tools may provide inspiration to a lot of organisations.

WINGS: Are there any TUSEV initiatives you’d like to see addressed at the event? How does Turkey provide a good location for the event, from a philanthropy perspective? What types of developments are happening in Turkey that put this event “in the right place at the right time”?

BE: Under its “Philanthropy Infrastructure Development Project”, TUSEV aims to encourage organised philanthropy and culture of giving for social good and to support the infrastructure for philanthropy in Turkey. Within the scope of the project, TUSEV has published reports on giving practices of corporations, grant-making foundations and individual donor stories. To achieve its goals, TUSEV has been organising events for different sectors with the aim to spread the culture of strategic philanthropy on all fronts.

Turkey is actually going through a great transformation these days. While its economy has been expanding alongside with its popularity in the region, there are also social and political changes that can be easily observed. But in these changing times, we can look at the history of the country to understand the Turkish culture of philanthropy and how its practiced today. The long history of traditional philanthropy practices and the presence of highly old foundations make Turkey an interesting country for hosting the WINGSForum.

As we are trying to transform our traditional philanthropy practices into strategic giving, we believe Turkey is the ideal place to host such a Forum. While many foundations are getting introduced to the idea of implementing grant programs, corporations are enhancing their corporate social responsibility programs and individuals are getting more encouraged to do philanthropy in their private lives. With this Forum, participants from Turkey will have the chance to learn more about examplary philanthropic practices from other countries and think about the innovative ways in which they can implement them in their own organisations.

Learn more about WINGSForum on our website.

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