Over the past few decades, the number of philanthropic organizations established across the world has increased, with 260,000 foundations spanning 39 countries as of 2018. The vast majority of all foundations around the world are primarily concentrated in North America and Europe. However, the number of philanthropic organizations formed elsewhere is also rising – many of which are based on the dominant Western model of philanthropy.
Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), philanthropic giving has also increased exponentially. This is driven by a "strong religious or cultural imperative to give back," heavily influenced by the Islamic pillar of zakat (almsgiving), and "growing levels of personal and state wealth across the MENA region." Out of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 161 foundations exist in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia alone. However, as the philanthropic sector continues to grow in size, important questions arise about how philanthropic activities are being documented and the extent to which the sector is being regulated.
Challenges to Philanthropic Giving in the MENA and GCC
According to Ridge et al. (2019), reliable and comprehensive data on specific philanthropic activities in different fields is largely lacking in the MENA region. Moreover, high levels of secrecy in the philanthropic sector point to the lack of trust that exists between different foundations across the region. This is further exacerbated by the sector's general deregulation, as foundations are not required and are often unwilling to disclose certain kinds of data about their work.
Research also reflects the increasing dominance of mega-foundations that do not always tailor their work to the local context in which they are operating. In light of the Western model of philanthropy's influence on foundations in the Gulf states, it is perhaps unsurprising that GCC countries are less likely to focus on domestic issues and more likely to carry out international work than non-GCC foundations in the Middle East. However, evidence suggests that many demographic groups considered at-risk populations have needs that the philanthropic or governmental sectors should address.
SLOW Philanthropy: A Networking and Accreditation Mechanism
In light of the significant challenges within the regional philanthropic sector, the concept of Sustainable, Local, Open, and Welcoming (SLOW) Philanthropy was born. Founded by the Al Qasimi Foundation in 2021, this networking initiative and certification mechanism seeks to enable like-minded foundations to come together and share knowledge, best practices, and experiences with one another. These SLOW Philanthropy organizations are dedicated to being sustainable, local, open, and welcoming when working closely with and supporting their local communities. Each of the four themes is discussed in greater detail below.
Philanthropic organizations must be sustainable if they are to become long-term strategic partners and actors that serve the needs of their communities. Without financial security, philanthropic organizations are more likely to shut down or spend up to more than half of their time securing funding. This reduces the time spent on and scope of the philanthropic activities undertaken in this sector. As such, SLOW Philanthropy certified organizations work toward having sustainable financed models, strategies, and policies to demonstrate and sustain impact over time.
It is further necessary for foundations to focus on their local context to better help their communities. For example, in the UAE, boys are far more likely to drop out of school than girls, significant environmental issues remain unaddressed, and other at-risk or neglected populations, such as the elderly and adult learners, have few aid recourses in the public or private philanthropic sector. As such, SLOW Philanthropy certified foundations demonstrate their commitment to focus on their communities, tackle context-specific challenges, and empower local populations.
As indicated earlier, the lack of transparency in the philanthropic sector itself is not conducive to establishing trust and networking between organizations. One study notes that foundations recognize the difficulty, albeit necessity, of working together with other foundations and organizations, such as governmental bodies and ministries. As such, through the establishment of SLOW Philanthropy certification and creating this networking platform, greater coordination between organizations becomes easier and is highly encouraged.
Lastly, philanthropic organizations should attempt to more effectively serve their communities by engaging them through free, open events and being accessible to all. By positively and intentionally interacting with their local community, foundations can better listen to, understand, and meet the needs of different underserved populations.
In sum, in a world where times are changing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for sustainable, local, open, and welcoming philanthropic organizations has become more crucial than ever. SLOW serves to ensure that philanthropic programs are context-specific and genuinely support the communities that foundations were created to serve. In the words of Ridge and Terway (2019), the "key to the success and sustainability of philanthropic work… is that organizations are perceived as trustworthy." This is exactly what the SLOW Philanthropy initiative seeks to achieve.
Janaan serves as a Research Assistant at the Al Qasimi Foundation. In her role, she supports the planning and implementation of the Foundation’s research and coordinates research project-related administrative activities. She previously worked as a Research Intern at the Foundation and conducted qualitative and quantitative research while interning with the Dutch Relief Alliance, a coalition of 16 humanitarian aid organizations in the Netherlands. Janaan was also employed as a Research Trainee for the “Monuments and Antiquity in Muslim Imaginations” digital humanities project at Leiden University, the Netherlands. She holds a BA in International Studies from Leiden University, with a specialization in the Middle East. During her undergraduate studies, she conducted research on how education can influence the UAE’s transition to a knowledge-based economy. Inspired by her upbringing in the UAE, Janaan’s research interests pertain to the nexus between education and economic development in the GCC, youth empowerment, and gender dynamics.