The three Cs of good philanthropy

Arab foundations need connection, critical perspective, and courage if they want to solve societal problems, says Barbara Ibrahim.

Omar Elsharawy 9Fo5zdb31le Unsplash (2)

Barbara Ibrahim was the founding director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo. Before founding the Gerhart Center in 2006, Ibrahim was regional director for West Asia and North Africa at the Population Council and, earlier, the Middle East program officer for urban poverty and women’s studies programs for the Ford Foundation.

Philanthropy in the Middle East is growing and evolving. Back in the 1980s, when I was a programme officer with the Ford Foundation based in Cairo, we could probably have counted on one hand, the number of more strategic foundations and philanthropies active in the region. 

But by 2007, when I carried out a study on the region’s private foundations for the Gerhart Center with Dina Sherif, it was clear things had changed.

By this point in time, there was an untold number of new foundations formed to respond to social and development needs in the Arab world. Yet, for all the fresh dynamism some issues had persisted, preventing one of the world’s most-generous regions from achieving its full philanthropic potential.

I am encouraged by the continued growth and professionalism of philanthropy in the MENA region. But I believe there are three foundational values we all need to adopt if we truly wish to move forward and make our societies - and philanthropic sector - something that our children and grandchildren will be happy to inherit.

The three Cs

The first C that I would like to talk about today is connection. While community looks inside of ourselves and how we can support each other, connection is asking us to reach outside, perhaps outside of our usual comfort zone.

It demands we get away from our offices, from our meetings and methods of usual work, and to make meaningful engagements on the ground, possibly with people very unlike ourselves.

Yet too often we think that our funding is what makes change possible. And that managing funding can easily be done from behind our desks.

When I was a young programme officer at the Ford Foundation under a very wise leader, Dr John Gerhart, he showed us by example that what held back most of our best grantees was not money, but it was connections. It was moving them out of the isolation where they worked. It was helping them find a champion and a road in to work with the policy makers. Sometimes it was just information and knowledge that they needed to take a step forward.

A recent example of this came to us in Cairo after October 7, when suddenly our city was full of international aid representatives. They had collected impressive amounts of funding, and they were there to send support and supplies into Gaza. But they didn't have local connections. They didn't know how to work with government entities. And so, there was a lot of duplication of effort and inefficiencies in the system.

There I was, with no funding, but with a large ‘Rolodex’ of the relationships I had formed over the years, both in civil society and with the humanitarian aid community, who in turn had links into government that could be helpful.

Next followed a very intense period putting the international folks in touch with local resources and entities that could help. We found that a lot of these organisations were flying in medical supplies that could have been easily and more cheaply bought in Cairo.

So, we began making lists of what could be easily, acquired in the local market: gauze, syringes, certain medications. At the same time, there were medications in very short supply in Cairo, so if these aid agencies had started buying up local supplies, they would have been depriving the Egyptian public.

So, again, there were lists of things that would be more helpfully and efficiently brought in from outside. These are the kinds of connections that often you don't know that you have until they're needed. And you find that your best and most impactful role will be as a connector.

Shutterstock 1978540829

An Egyptian aid truck waiting to cross the Rafah border into Gaza. Photo: Shutterstock

My second C is critical perspective. And by that I do not mean criticism, which is how the word is commonly understood even in translation. And I certainly don't mean the Arabic word for inspection ("teftiche"), about which there is a lot of sensitivity in our culture.

What I mean by critical perspective is that we look inside ourselves and ask ourselves, do we need to think about and change the modalities in which we're working to better react to how the world around us is changing?

Can we think beyond traditional tools, which we may be very comfortable with, and find others that make us much more impactful? We have a great example here in Egypt of a major donor in the health sector. The founder was building eye clinics across the country but suddenly had the epiphany that his funding would gofurther if he allowed local communities to build their own clinics. So instead of paying for the building works himself, he guaranteed bank loans that enabled communities to do it instead.

There are lots of examples like this, but where we need to revamp ourselves, to face the really big challenges that we face today, is to look for the unmet needs.

One of the problems we found in the sector during our research at the Gerhart Center was a bunching up of subsectors in which philanthropy was active -- in education, health, poverty, and women.

But there are other pressing needs too, around legal assistance, refugee issues, and climate change, for example. And now, more than ever, we need philanthropy that is knowledgeable and geared up to work on issues of conflict resolution and peace-building. So, a question we can ask ourselves is whether we could take on an unmet need or a tough set of issues in our sector that others are not yet addressing.

“A question we can ask ourselves is whether we could take on an unmet need or a tough set of issues that others are not yet addressing.”

Barbara Ibrahim

My third C is courage. By this, I mean the kind of bravery that blazes new paths and defies what is an accepted status quo by almost everyone else.

Are we doing enough to make our organisations courageous? Are we doing enough to free up and to enable our staff to take risks, to try something new, maybe even fail, but at least they have gone on a path to trying to be more effective.

Do we create a culture in which petty corruption or cutting corners is accepted, and then complain about larger corruption in our societies? Are we creating institutional cultures that are courageous and brave about the things we see around us?

If we're going to do this, we must address the big issues in our world, things like inequality, discrimination, and injustice. Even while we feel very helpless to change things in a big way, we begin to do it in small ways.

Gaza is on all our minds right now. It is understandable to feel that no matter what we or our institution does we cannot stop the bloodshed. But history tells us that the guns will fall silent. There will be a moment in which everyone catches their breath, and it won't be enough to talk in slogans, like we need political change, or we need a two-state solution.

What is going to be needed on the ground are just the things that I'm convinced Arab philanthropy could begin to address, and we could start now.

Think about where you have comparative advantage: does your company or a company you work with develop a technology that we could transfer to the Gazans that would make it more efficient for them to rebuild their water systems?

Could you organise volunteer teachers who could go and run classes under tents until schools can be rebuilt? Perhaps something as simple as volunteers who could provide arts and culture sessions to traumatised kids, who are going to need a lot of love and attention for many years to come. Can you address a disability? Can you send physical therapy expertise for the long-term wounded?

I believe there are going to be myriad ways we could begin together to plan and to think ahead and to be brave and courageous in one place where we all care a great deal and where there has been tremendous suffering. Doing what we can together as a philanthropic community to have courage, and to use our connections and critical perspective for good.

Note: This is an edited version of a keynote address delivered by Barbara at a Circle event in March 2024.