Philanthropy and Academia in the Arab World

By Heba Abou Shnief

With a burgeoning philanthropic landscape and a rich tradition of giving, philanthropy is often thought to have a life of its own in the Arab region. This conception rarely does invoke thinking about connections with data, research and knowledge.  Despite a budding philanthropy eco-system and the most well intended efforts of academia, the role of academia and research support organizations in advancing philanthropic practices in the Arab region is still not fully comprehended and/or embraced by both policy-makers and practitioners alike. Naila El Farouky, CEO of the Arab Foundations Forum speaks of a ‘disconnect between the producers of the knowledge and those for whom and about whom the knowledge is produced’ in a 2016 article. A number of supply and demand side factors can be contributing to this disconnect. On the supply side, academia might not be delivering its message across to philanthropy practitioners in a timely and actionable manner; it is not grasping or keeping abreast with what the issues on the ground are; or there is not enough effort invested in communicating research findings. On the demand side, practitioners can be too busy to listen and engage with academics or do not recognize the relevance of research for effective philanthropic practices. While it is difficult to assess which factors are more at play, however, it is important to contextualize how academia and research organizations can be better connected with practitioners and the Arab philanthropy eco-system. This is an issue of concern especially that the few academic institutions that do adopt philanthropy as a primary area of research are spread thin.

One way in which academic institutions can better inform philanthropic practices is by developing performance measurements and benchmarks that can measure the success and failure of Arab philanthropy. So far, such benchmarks and performance measurements are severely lacking in the region holding back the sector from achieving its full potential and optimizing impact.

The data deficit on who is doing what, where and how is another strategic knowledge gap that robust research and academia can best address. The need for research that can support more informed decision-making by philanthropic organizations is strongly needed to address the current fragmentation and overlap of efforts. Although anecdotal, there is an inspiring example of how research on philanthropic investments in the UAE has guided a more effective allocation of investments towards under-funded sectors. Another example, is the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, a university based center at the American University in Cairo, effort to build globally comparable data on the typology and operating structure of foundations in the region. It has piloted a first-of-its-kind in the region survey of foundations in Saudi Arabia in partnership with the King Khaled Foundation.

Research organizations serving philanthropy should be the place to go for knowledge on innovations and trends in the field. As philanthropic organization executives are busy with the day-to-day operations, the need for tracking, analysis and reflection can be lost sight of. Academia’s role in providing an independent, methodological and comprehensive view of emerging trends and good practices is crucial for learning and knowledge exchange in our region.

Another critical area where academia can better connect to practice is through research based advocacy on the determinants of an enabling environment for Arab philanthropy.  One such important determinant is the regulatory framework governing philanthropic organizations in the region. The literature underscores the complicated regulatory procedures and discretion on the part of regulatory authorities as one of the main obstacle hindering foundations both during inception and operation. Given that academia and research organizations supposedly do not represent any particular interests, they should be regarded as the front line champions of philanthropic organizations in efforts to advocate for a more conducive environment.

These areas of contribution are not meant to comprise the be all end all of a more connected relationship between philanthropy and academia, but simply to provide a nuanced view of where academia can better serve the sector. But only when this connection is not be modeled as a one way relationship but as a dynamic, iterative and mutually reinforcing one can a meaningful change take place.

Heba Abou Shnief is Research Adviser at The John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy & Civic Engagement, The American University in Cairo

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