by Noha El-Mikawy, Regional Director, MENA Office, Ford Foundation
Infrastructure organizations is a term used to lump intermediary organizations that are not themselves engaged in social giving but do provide services to that sector, e.g. information about the sector, capacity development tools for the sector’s professionals, professionalization tips for the sector’s organizations, standards that benefit the whole sector’s overall performance. Associations of foundations are one form of infrastructure organizations in philanthropy. Research centers that focus on philanthropy research are another example. Magazines and journals that report solely on philanthropy are also included in a wide definition of infrastructure organizations serving the philanthropy sector.
For the longest time, we have accepted the fact that businessmen do come together in so called business associations to represent their sector; business associations are a sort of infrastructure or intermediary business organization. Rarely do we meet someone who doubts that those business associations do have an added value; and, thus, businessmen gladly set them up and keep them going.
The situation is quite different in the case of intermediary or infrastructure associations that serve the philanthropy sector. The term infrastructure or intermediary organization is new and those organizations that service the philanthropy sector are not very common around the world, even in regions where philanthropy is growing in numbers and types. Those that do exist are scrapping for resources, which indicates that the individual philanthropy organizations that compose the sector are not yet convinced that they need infrastructure or intermediary organizations for the sector. Some go as far as to argue that philanthropy organizations across the world are not yet fully aware themselves or fully posturing as a sector.
Therein lies the catch. To become a sector, its individual constituents have to feel like a sector; yet to feel like one, there need to be intermediaries that raise awareness of the role and impact of the sector. Data is a good example of this dilemma. One important function for infrastructure organizations is that they gather voluntary information from their members about the philanthropy and social giving practice of each, be that volume of funding, approaches to funding, grant craft trends, etc. Given the dynamism currently witnessed in the sector, infrastructure associations could come handy as observers of new formations, new approaches and practices, new modalities of cooperation and design of public solutions, and hence good storytellers about the sector as such. To do that, infrastructure organizations need a wide database to be able to observe, monitor and analyze trends and give back to the sector some reflections and recommendations. For that to happen and happen sustainably, the various actors that make up this increasingly complex sector are expected to volunteer information about themselves; that should be seen as “good citizenship,” a good act of transparency towards the sector.
The Arab Foundations Forum AFF is the first member-based infrastructure organization in the Arab region. Its members are primarily Arab foundations from the Middle East, the Gulf and North Africa; its membership is also opened to research centers of philanthropy. The AFF has taken it upon itself to encourage the culture of sharing information to create a database that would allow the entire philanthropy and social giving sector an observant eye on its collective practices and trends, and thus reflect on how to continue to improve the collective impact of the sector on development. AFF started a social giving data project that has been picking up speed and enthusiasm over the years; but the road is still long.
Appreciation of reflection and learning is another trait of “good citizenship” in a sector. The more long term strategic interventions are sought to benefit the public good, the greater is the need to reflect on one’s interventions and approaches and share and collaborate to make sure investments are bearing fruit in the widest possible manner and successes are scaled up, where applicable. This drive to learn, reflect and share enables infrastructure organizations esp. research centers of philanthropy to build the field of social giving and enrich its methods and impact in society.
The Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement (GC) at the American University in Cairo is the first infrastructure organization of its kind in the region to devote itself to research of philanthropy in the Arab region, a region known for centuries of religious endowments and religious giving. The Gerhart Center has created a space for regional research and reflection on modern trends of philanthropy in the Arab region. Providing a space to share knowledge about the sector, the Takaful conference of GC has been offering a rich opportunity to raise awareness about the sector and build a body of knowledge and appreciation for its work through storytelling and cumulative sharing and learning.
Both GC and AFF provide Arab philanthropists and social givers with opportunities for collecting data that lifts up the stories of the sector. They also do reflection to augment any one lesson learnt inside one philanthropy, be that on youth programming, education or gender empowerment. This spirit of wanting to learn together is increasing in the sector. The opportunities are increasingly being seized and collaborations are starting to take place. One such example is the youth collaborative initiative led by AFF. The Youth coalition, according to AFF’s director, “is a collaboration between likeminded foundations and organizations, all working within the youth space.” Furthermore, GC works in collaboration with Business Associations and Federation of Industries in Egypt to share lessons and reflections about the role of private wealth in development. The CSR and Sustainability annual conference in Egypt is such an opportunity for foundations – such as the Sawiris Foundation, business associations- such as the American Chamber of Businessmen, the federation of Industries, Banking Sector, and the Gerhart Center to assemble a wide array of people to reflect. The culture of joint reflection is increasing in the region. For example, the Sawiris Foundation and the Ford Foundation organized in Cairo in December 2017 a joint reflection session on the objectives, design and impact of scholarship and fellowship programs in Egypt. They worked jointly to bring together the main actors in this area of social giving for educational opportunity and excellence to reflect on their field experience. The meeting was a testimony of eagerness to share openly one’s successes and challenges.
If infrastructure organizations, such as membership based associations of philanthropy, philanthropy research centers and philanthropy magazines, are to be empowered to serve the sector and drive its collective impact, they need financial support to sustain themselves. Individual philanthropy organizations cannot tell a collective story of added value based on myriad individual philanthropic interventions. Infrastructure organizations can do that and by so doing, they enhance the image of the sector, augmenting its professionalism and its impact on development. They can only do that with a group of professionals, researchers, trainers, surveyors and statistical analysts. This set of professionals can do a good job when well respected and appreciated, also through market competitive pay. The idea that infrastructure organizations can bring added value to the collective viability of a sector with volunteers only is naïve. The financial sustainability of infrastructure organizations is thus a key factor of the sustainability of philanthropy and social giving as a sector, as a profession. Taking the mantra of the SDG’s about partnership for development seriously, the social giving sector needs to start thinking seriously about the sustainability of intermediary or infrastructure organizations.
 WINGS 2017 Global report The Global Landscape of Philanthropy indicates that 80% of all spending on infrastructure organizations in philanthropy happens in the USA.