Reflections from Emirates Foundation Youth Philanthropy Summit


Caroline Fiennes


Begun only last year, Emirates Foundation’s annual summit has already become a fixture, and it’s huge. It started as a way for Emirates Foundation to gather insights to improve its own work – running a handful of youth development programmes across the United Arab Emirates (which comprises Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and five other emirates). It’s also now covering effective philanthropy, reflecting Emirates Foundation’s own (remarkably fast) transition from wide-ranging grantmaking to focused social enterprise.

This year, 650 people turned up to the Summit, held in Abu Dhabi on 3 and 4 November, to hear over 80 speakers from across the region and beyond, many of them experts on maximizing impact. They came with a wide range of interests: a guy running a tech hub in Beirut, a local Emirati doctor working with Médecins Sans Frontières interested in improving the use of evidence in primary healthcare in rural Yemen, a lady doing corporate governance consulting in Dubai, two social enterpreneurs from Saudi.

Beyond size, a few features were striking. First, the women. Perhaps this just reflects my own ignorant prejudice about the region, but women were everywhere and doing everything. The keynote speaker was a (senior Emirati) woman; the opening panel of four people had three women (including myself); we took five questions, three of which were from women. That level of representation is rare even in the West. I don’t think I saw any all-male panels – whereas the UK’s NESTA has recently specifically banned them, and I went from Abu Dhabi straight to a conference in America where there were plenty. Perhaps the Gulf is miles ahead.

Second was a counterpoint around anonymity in giving. The Gulf has plenty of vast foundations bearing names of their founders – as well as many huge buildings, cars, chandeliers and yachts which are hardly coy reminders of wealth. But there’s also a great deal of giving which is completely unreported; even some five- and six-figure gifts are made informally. The Koran is apparently as unenthusiastic about ostentatious generosity as The Bible is, so Muslim donors face the same conundrum as donors in the West, given that giving in public view can (we think) encourage others to give.

Third, there were some great questions about impact. Many donors and operators I heard speak are thinking seriously about it, and several had rightly noticed that they can avoid making some of the mistakes that the West has made in that regard. If donors and operators there can figure out what really needs measuring, and what doesn’t, how to measure it rigorously but cost-effectively, and how to share the lessons and integrate them into decision-making, we’ll all be turning up to learn.

Caroline Fiennes is director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain’t What You Give.

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