Atallah Kuttab — Balancing an ecosystem of philanthropies

kuttab_250Dr. Atallah Kuttab is the chairman of WINGS, the chairman of SAANED for Philanthropy Advisory, and a founding member of both the Arab Human Rights Fund and the Arab Foundations Forum. A renowned specialist in philanthropy and human rights, he has spent a good part of his life developing new initiatives in both fields.

Kuttab is promoting a better understanding of local practices and philanthropy discourse — a trend he hopes will create a “truly global philanthropy enriched with its diversity”. Chris Delatorre, WINGS managing editor, met with Kuttab to learn more about Arab philanthropy, its history, and how it fits into an “ecosystem of philanthropies around the world”.

WINGS: What inspired your fellowship and how does it relate to your recent work in Rotterdam?

Atallah Kuttab: My fellowship at the Robert Bosch Academy had to do with how local discourses of philanthropy are developing around the world, and reflecting on how Arab philanthropy is developing, whether similar to other regions or taking a different line. When WINGS issued its report on institutional global philanthropy in 2010, we saw that it was relatively easy for our US colleagues to compile data, but I would say everyone outside the US struggled. We followed a taxonomy that was relevant to the US but when it came to quantification we had difficulty from virtually all other regions. Since then we’ve learned that we need to understand what is happening in every region before we jump into a global study.

My struggle in the Arab region was that, despite the fact that I could easily look at the history and tradition of giving, it was very hard to see where it was heading. Since 1990 new foundations in the Arab region had been following the Anglo-American discourse, which in my opinion was limiting, because you can only copy to a limit. You cannot progress much further because it isn’t anchored in local traditions. Some terminologies, for instance, don’t vibe with the local culture. From my linkages within WINGS I found that people from other regions had the same feeling.

When I was offered the fellowship at Bosch I thought I should work on this topic. It was amazing, the similarities in the various regions where everyone had strong traditions, whether in Europe, China, Africa or the Arab region. However, this strong tradition of giving was disrupted by governments that considered the welfare of their citizens as their sole responsibility and therefore took control of the philanthropic resources that existed including endowments, lands and property. In my region this disruption happened in 1863 when the Ottomans created a ministry to manage and control philanthropy endowments (called waqf) leading to discouragement to establish new waqf and general decline in the value of the existing ones. So the disruption took different paths and since 1980s and 90s there has been a revival and a surge in the establishment of philanthropy organizations including foundations.

This is what my fellowship is about, to try to discover how people are reviving philanthropy and giving in their countries, building on the rich traditions. In this respect the American discourse hadn’t experienced a disruption like what happened in other countries, so it had a relatively long period of growth and maturity, and we are wise to benefit from that well-documented experience.

But then after this revival, where is philanthropy heading? Is it becoming a copy of American philanthropy or becoming something of a different form? This is the essence of the fellowship — and it is still an open question. Because my fellowship was in Berlin I visited various philanthropy centers in Europe to discuss this matter — among them, the philanthropy center at the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University. I made it clear that I was not lecturing, but presenting points for discussion and I was there to learn how philanthropy had been growing in the Netherlands during this renewal period.

It was amazing how the Netherlands had a very long culture of giving spanning several hundred years. And philanthropy was helping immigrants settle there because they were seen as wealth that needed to be cherished and included in society. This is in contrast to the present attitude to refugees in Europe. Maybe the lessons learned from the Dutch philanthropy heritage could be used to revive the spirit of opening arms to immigrants and not seeing them as a liability but as assets for development.

What also came out of that meeting was the basis of a framework for an “ecosystem” of philanthropies around the world, which consisted of three elements: the sources of funds; intermediaries; and the end users of funds. So you can imagine a matrix with three cells, each feeding into the next. Sometimes sources of funds can go through the intermediary to the end user and sometimes it goes directly to the end user. This was the key learning from this meeting.

There are three or four emerging sources of funds, the first of which covers individual giving, family giving and family corporates. These aren’t necessarily different and in many countries they can be the same, although traditional literature segregates them. The second emerging source of funding is community foundations. The third is the evolution of corporate social responsibility, what we call social impact investment or social investment — the mix of the for-profit and non-profit sectors. This is really growing, and there’s lots of hope that it will evolve our sector and bring more synergies and resources between sectors. This was discussed along with the infrastructure of philanthropy, which includes associations, philanthropy advisors and others.

The meeting at Erasmus University gave me insight within a European context on the ecosystem of philanthropy. I used that meeting to reflect on other countries, and at the conclusion of the fellowship I finalized a model that was published in the September issue of Alliance magazine.

WINGS: Is your master class in Rotterdam an example of what you’d like to do in other regions? How have your learnings on local cultures in each region influenced the work?

AK: The fellowship allowed me to travel around the world. I was in Colombia last August. It was quite revealing that the word “philanthropy” there means the charity approach, which is giving someone a fish every day rather than teaching him or her how to fish, and the term to describe philanthropy is social investment. I also visited China. We had meetings there alongside the WINGS board meeting last March with key foundations in China to look at the renewal phase, if you will, because there’s been heavy disruption as a communist country and now we’re seeing wealthy people who want to invest their money in social issues. Last November I convened a meeting in South Africa, and in early June I convened a meeting in Berlin with colleagues from around the world. The wheel is spinning, if you will.

My wish was that there would be an appetite to take the work forward in every region. And I suggested we create an informal network with all of us from these regions to take the work forward. We agreed in that meeting that WINGS would be a knowledge repository for our individual work. Once we have enough material after we meet in our various regions with a larger number of people getting engaged in each region and going into the various topics in more depth, we’ll convene again to see how things are developing around the globe. It’s important to highlight the diversity within the various regions around the world. We shouldn’t try to push uniformity because we might hide the richness of local practices. And before we come with a common framework and rush into filling it we should understand the specificities of every region and the diversity of practices. I hope this is how it will unfold.

It’s about local initiatives with local resources all moving at different paces. And WINGS will cement this global initiative. Every region should lead its own part of the initiative. I am the initiator but really nobody can do it for any region other than the people in each region.

WINGS: Shelagh Gastrow (Inyathelo) wrote a piece on local cultures of giving in Africa. Anything to say about the experience and expertise that Inyathelo and other member organizations can bring to this global discussion?

AK: It would be naive for the thirty of us that met in Berlin last June to think that we hold all the knowledge related to philanthropy. The field has lots of players and we should not be dismissive. The philanthropists and social investors out there need to be heard and we need to understand them better. The challenge is how we accumulate knowledge from the various regions. As I mentioned earlier there is a lot of copying going on from the Anglo-Saxon but the terminology and approaches from other continents will only work up to a point because they might not fit into the local culture. We need to keep learning what is appropriate for various regions and encourage cross learning between regions. We should create a learning globe. For example, with the African model of philanthropy there are lots of experiences on solidarity issues and how communities create resilience by working together.

It’s not only money on the table, but it’s also about supporting each other. In other cases there are examples of strong social businesses developing. If well documented it can form a learning tool for other countries to develop. So you have every region learning from other regions, where everyone can benefit from a shared global experience.

WINGS: You used the word “ecosystem”, and mentioned seeing similarities throughout the various regions, as far as adopting a more global outlook on philanthropy. How can WINGS as a global network facilitate in broadening this taxonomy beyond the Anglo-American discourse?

AK: WINGS has done a lot in the last four or five years. For one, WINGS has very limited resources itself. If it doesn’t use its convening power of members it will never be able to contribute much to the scene of philanthropy globally. So the greatest asset of WINGS is its membership. It’s rich because of its coverage from around the world, and because its members are engaged. WINGS should capitalize on that engagement and cross-fertilize initiatives happening in all regions. This is the main value of WINGS, and the reason why in Berlin I made a point to say that really none of us in that room can be the repository of knowledge.

There is only one place that has the legitimacy of global representation, and that is WINGS. As a neutral body that represents us, WINGS provides a platform for us to share notes and benefit from each other’s learning experiences. This is what I see as the major role of WINGS in the topic of developing global philanthropy and supporting its infrastructure.

In a recent video Kuttab and his colleagues discuss the “Perspectives on Arab & Global Philanthropy” workshop at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. Watch the video and download the report. Kuttab joined Tina Thiart (SACGLF) and Marcos Kisil (IDIS) for a webinar this week on Cultures of Giving. More WINGS interviews here.

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