There was a point in history when giving in the Arab region could boast sustainable approaches in the form of endowments for much-needed social services like education and health services. More recently, however, giving has been charity-oriented, mostly state-sponsored, ill-studied and patronizing. Hence, the need for a network of concerned organizations to learn from other regions around the globe and develop a local discourse relevant to local traditions and practice.
The Arab Foundations Forum (AFF) has taken on this role. Though it is a relative latecomer to the ranks of regional associations, it has profited from the lessons of its fellows, ensuring continued ownership among members and keeping costs low. If progress has sometimes seemed frustratingly slow, this has been necessary to keep the members together and to ensure a solid base for the future.
Where it all began
The genesis of the network was at the European Foundations Centre (EFC) meeting in Budapest in May 2005. The three Arab organizations attending, the Arab Fund for Human Rights, the Universal Education Foundation and the Welfare Association, agreed to convene a meeting of Arab foundations to discuss the possibility of forming a network. The inaugural meeting of the new body, initially known as the Arab Foundations Alliance, took place the following May in Jordan on the initiative of the Welfare Association, which also agreed to provide back-office services and coordinate the network. Seven further meetings followed over the course of the next four years.
A turning point: the Abu Dhabi meeting
By the time of the eighth meeting in Abu Dhabi in March 2009, the AFF had approved bylaws and was ready for incorporation. For this and other reasons, the meeting was a tipping point. Membership exceeded projected numbers. By September, there were 18 applicants for full membership, three for fellow membership (those who meet all membership criteria but are based outside the Arab region) and seven for associate membership (those that work in the region but do not meet all membership criteria). Egyptian foundations, numerically the largest in the region, had joined the network, as had the Gerhart Center at the American University in Cairo, making it the first philanthropy research centre to join. Most important, leadership was taken over by new members, and the core founding members ceased to be the main driving force
Learning from others’ experience
There were a number of factors involved in the relatively successful early development of AFF. Being one of the last regions to form a network had its advantages. It meant that we were able to learn from the experience of others like the EFC, the Council on Foundations, TrustAfrica and WINGS. Perhaps the most enlightening of all, however, was the experience of the Southern African Grantmakers’ Association (SAGA), since we learned as much from its closure as from its successes. From my reading of SAGA’s history, its main drawback was lack of ownership by its members. In view of this, we made member ownership of AFF a central plank of the concept. This influenced the decision to remain small, to keep the group informal, and to build a strong core group of similarly minded and committed foundations in the early stages.
Maintaining a sense of ownership
The name of AFF took around three meetings to agree, but the discussion was an excellent team-building exercise which enhanced trust and set the tone of our relationship. Any tendency to be dismissive of such a topic soon disappeared when we realized that it was a question of our identity – what we stood for and how we wanted to operate. ‘Forum’ was preferred to ‘network’ because, to some, the latter meant that their contribution started and ended with the meetings, while a secretariat did most of the work. They wanted a grouping where everybody was engaged and where responsibility was distributed among all members, not just a few.
The question of incorporation was similarly crucial to the feeling of ownership. The early founders of AFF, myself included, saw incorporation as a distraction, but I have to admit that, again, it was an excellent team-building factor. It also helped define who we are, how we relate to each other, and what we will get out of AFF as a group.
New members joining at every meeting, while it was obviously a good thing, also posed a challenge to the sense of ownership. They would often question what the group had agreed in previous meetings, and we would often have to go back over the same ground. While this was frustrating for the founders, it was nevertheless agreed that the issues they raised should not be brushed aside, even if it meant delays in moving forward. With the bylaws in place, there is still a commitment that new members have the right to raise issues and propose changes.
It was clear from the experience of existing networks that dependence on external donors for core costs is a source of difficulty. AFF adopted two ways of avoiding this: keeping meeting costs as low as possible – members cover their own costs, while member foundations in the host country cover the cost of the venue. As a result, the meetings cost AFF next to nothing. Second, pushing early on for membership fees. Initially fixed at $1,000 annually, new members later proposed that we raise this to $3,000 annually, based on a target of 20 members to cover core costs. In our last grant application to the Ford Foundation for AFF activities, there was no request for core costs.
In addition, the fact that AFF was hosted by the Welfare Association meant that the cost of its operation and set-up was minimal and allowed the initial core group of founders not to be distracted by the setting up of the network infrastructure. This meant a solid start for the AFF, with quality time focusing on issues that matter.
Initially, we felt that AFF should focus on linking social justice foundations. However, later and with the addition of new members, it became clear that we should include all foundations in the region and not contribute to fragmentation of the philanthropy sector. There has to be to a dialogue on the effectiveness of the full range of giving.
The need for high-level representation
Experience from other networks shows that foundation collaboration can work but takes time, and most of all commitment, from the participants. Participants should be decision-makers in their own organizations if they are to move agendas forward. From the outset, therefore, AFF has had two criteria for participation: participation at the level of executive director or, at a pinch, one level below, and consistency in who is delegated to attend if the assigned representative cannot do so. This has served AFF well in the last period when key decisions needed to be taken on questions such as the objectives document, bylaws and membership fees.
During the initial period from May 2006 to March 2009, there was constant uncertainty as to whether AFF was needed, whether it would be able to attract members, and whether members would remain committed. The forum has successfully negotiated these early stages. However, with a surge in membership and attendance at meetings, the leadership of AFF needs to continue to focus on the characteristics that have so far served it well: maintaining cooperation among members and avoiding competition; embracing diversity in the type and size of foundation, geographic mandate and approach to giving; and avoiding funder dependence by financing core costs from membership dues.
A number of other developments will be important. We must widen membership by bringing in new members from the western part of the Arab region (Maghreb). We must also increase membership from the Gulf so that AFF does not become an eastern Mediterranean-plus-Egypt group of foundations.
Most important, we must continue to be meaningful to members. The next period of AFF’s development will be concerned with activities and care needs to be taken to ensure that these are what members want. At times, progress has seemed slow, but we must avoid moving faster than the majority of members, so that commitment, engagement and, most important of all, trust are maintained.
Above all, we must ensure AFF remains relevant by continuing to define its importance to the infrastructure of philanthropy in the region.
Atallah Kuttab is Director General of the Welfare Association. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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