Emirates Foundation chief champions ‘venture philanthropy’

There is a well-worn path between business and philanthropy. An entrepreneur makes good, makes a fortune then proceeds to make a foundation that writes cheques to various worthy causes.

It is a road trodden by business people from Cadbury to Carnegie to Gates, and has involved the transfer of big sums to the deserving causes. It has, arguably, done much good, and not just for the egos of the business people concerned.

There is a new approach to philanthropy that questions that old model. The Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates said “effective philanthropy requires a lot of time and creativity, the same kind of focus and skills that building a business requires”, and that is part of the new approach.

Clare Woodcraft-Scott would go even further. She is the chief executive of the Emirates Foundation, the UAE’s national foundation established in 2005 under senior royal patronage, and believes an even bigger shift in attitude is needed.

“The foundation is a unique, pioneering model for the region. We’re the first to do it in the Arabian Gulf. We can produce much more impact with this approach than with the traditional cheque-writing approach,” she says.

She is speaking in the foundation’s majlis, in the heart of the power complex housed at Al Mamoura in the capital. “I believe philanthropy needs to change. It’s not about writing cheques and waiting to see the videos of smiling children. It’s about measuring scaleable social value. In a word, it is venture philanthropy rather than traditional charity,“ she says.

“Venture philanthropy is about applying the principles of business to philanthropic capital. It is not a quick fix in the sense of traditional philanthropy with its grant-making portfolios. Instead, we are controlling it, designing it and building it. It is about running it as a business, looking for long-term impact, and then measuring the social value of your actions,” she says.

Ms Woodcraft-Scott speaks with the eloquent authority of her time at the Shell Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the giant oil company that pioneered this approach. She was deputy director there until she joined the Emirates Foundation in 2012.

Back then she was no stranger to the region. A British university degree in Arabic (“I wanted to study a complex language that is spoken in lots of countries”) was followed by a stint in financial journalism based in the Palestinian Territories, followed by communications work in the Middle East for Visa International and for Shell.

Then she moved into the area of sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and stakeholder engagement, which has long been an interest. With hindsight, it was the perfect background for the role at Emirates Foundation. “I brought with me the model of the Shell Foundation. It was already well known and had a high impact.” The Emirates Foundation’s programmes are open to UAE residents of any nationality, aged between 15 and 35. “We are not exclusive, but mostly tend to attract youth who are Emirati,” she says. There is no specific programme for women, and the gender split is about 50-50, she says. About 20,000 people go through the foundation each year.

There are six programmes, each designed to address a specific challenge. Financial literacy, early school leavers, those seeking jobs in the private sector and a programme to connect young people in the Stem sectors – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Then there are two programmes aimed at volunteering. “A great way of getting young people inspired,” she says.

It is understandable there is overlap with government policy in some areas. For example, the programme on jobs in the private sector, Kafa’at, fits in with and reinforces the official stance on Emiratisation. “Many young Emiratis are just not aware of what jobs are available. They think it’s just in banking, but it’s broader than that. There may also be an expectation on the part of an employer that the young person will be unproductive, so that has to be tackled too,” she says.

“There has to be a mutual understanding on both sides if employers are going to attract and retain Emirati talent. In some ways it’s the challenge of all members of ‘Generation Y’.” Most of the foundations’s near Dh100m revenue comes from the government of Abu Dhabi, but it has an impressive list of private sector partners that reads like a Who’s Who of business in the UAE (and includes Abu Dhabi Media, owner of The National).

One innovative partnership recently came in the form a deal with the Dubai-based hedge fund Dalma Capital, whereby the foundation would receive the equivalent of the 15 per cent commission on new UAE-sourced business. “It was Dalma’s idea, and a very good one. It’s only been going for a couple of months so let’s see how it goes. We’re delighted to promote innovation in philanthropy,” Ms Woodcraft-Scott says.

But above all, she insists, the foundation must be viewed as a business proposition.

“Like any business, we have to measure effects of our activities, and in our case that means measuring social value. How many young people am I providing for? What is the real cost per person? How beneficial do these beneficiaries feel the programme was? All these questions have to be answered and business recalibrated on a regular basis, just like any business would measure its financial effectiveness,” she says.

“What we’re doing is creating a young, professional cadre of executives. I’d like nothing better than to eventually hand my job over to an Emirati.”


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