Muna Al Gurg is the Director of Retail at Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group. She is a businesswoman, a philanthropist, and a prominent advocate for the role of women and business in the Gulf Region.
In this discussion, Muna speaks to Badr Jafar, Founding Patron of the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy, about philanthropy in the Middle East and her advice to youth aspiring to work in this field.
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Badr: Always special to be talking with you dearest Muna and I very much appreciate your agreeing to be part of this interview series on the business of philanthropy for the Center for Strategic Philanthropy at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. Muna Al Gurg is highly successful and purposeful businesswoman from the UAE and a prominent advocate for the role of women and business in the Gulf region of the Middle East and beyond. Over the past 20 years, Muna has served in various capacities within her own family's diversified business, The Easa Saleh Al Gurg group, including overseeing the firm's local and international retail operations. She's also overseeing the delivery of a wide range of local and international strategic charitable initiatives through the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Charity Foundation, which is active across numerous causes, including housing and care centers for the vulnerable, research and education, medical aid, environmental preservation and cultural and Islamic research. Muna also serves on the boards of several other nonprofit organizations, including the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development. And she's a fellow founding board member of Endeavor UAE, a nonprofit initiative dedicated to promoting high impact entrepreneurship and has also served as chairwoman of the Young Arab Leaders since 2008. I believe. She's also a member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sustainability Board. And in 2015, Muna also launched her own scholarship program for the London Business School to provide Executive MBA opportunities specifically for women. Dearest Muna, Easa Saleh Al Gurg Charity Foundation was set up a decade ago and has been very active across numerous causes. What led to the creation of your family foundation? And how did you select the areas to focus on and also what if anything, would you have done differently with the experience that you've gained over the years?
Muna: Well, thank you for having me, Badr. It's a pleasure to be here and to be discussing this topic. The Easa Saleh Al Gurg Foundation was established by the founder, my father in 2010. And it is one of Dubai's first private charitable foundations. It has taken a quite traditional approach to philanthropy as generally practiced in the Middle East, with emphasis on access to basic services, including clean water, health, primary and secondary education and university education, and also religious aspects such as mosques in the UAE, East Africa, Palestine, and India. So my father was born in 1927. And hence his views on philanthropy have largely steered the foundation to date. And he really wanted to build a foundation that went beyond his lifetime. So this was really the idea. So my personal journey with philanthropy has taken me through traditional Middle East philanthropy to the point where I am today, whereby I'm thinking about notions such as sustainability and impact. And so I have been developing my ideas, taking inspiration from how philanthropy is practiced globally, and what can be learned to help us improve the state of philanthropy in the Middle East.
Badr: Fantastic, no, it's a privilege to hear about the genesis really, of the foundation itself and the fact that now it's being led in a second generation capacity with yourself. As you're aware, the Center for Strategic Philanthropy at Cambridge is dedicated to financial topic practice in the world's fastest growing markets, which currently includes many dynamic countries in Africa, developing Asia, and of course, the Middle East. How would you describe the state of strategic philanthropy in the Middle East region? Do you think that the role of private philanthropy is changing in the region? And how do you think that we can harness this change to generate greater collective impact in the future?
Muna: Well, I mean, I do see some emerging trends in Arab philanthropy from being charitable and often religious in nature to having a more developmental approach. However, I honestly feel it's still far from being strategic philanthropy for, let's say, social justice. So most local philanthropy support goes to relatively safe issues like let's say education, youth unemployment through direct income generating projects, but not to changes, let's say in legislation towards women's empowerment, for example. So you know, there are some areas of improvement and let's touch upon that.
Number one, really finding high quality national and local stuff. This is really crucial to the giving that we give and the foundations that we build. Secondly, really measuring impact and creating reports. This can lead to the tremendous success of foundations and the work done in the Middle East and philanthropy. Research white papers, for example, this is like a case study to others, where people can really learn from these research papers and learn how to improve upon their giving and the geographies that they're giving in. So I think foundations need to start working on such processes really, and enabling these processes for others to see. So philanthropy has typically been a private activity, which is fine and I guess understandable. However, there are significant gains to be had by sharing experiences and knowledge, and generally a more collaborative approach.
Badr: And on the note about changes and the evolution, you and I are both concerned about corporate governance challenges in our region. The Pearl Initiative, as you know, was launched a decade ago as a non-profit by business for business organizations to address this very challenge. And you've been very generous with your time participating at many of the organization's events and discussions over the years. The Pearl Initiative also launched a program dedicated to governance in philanthropic organizations a few years ago with the generous support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to really help empower and streamline the impact of the sector. Can you describe to us your vision of a better governed philanthropic sector in the Middle East and where are we today on this journey?
Muna: Right. So I think it would be great to see a more institutionalized giving approach develop and emerge in the Middle East. Many of the discussions had with the Pearl Initiative, as you rightly mentioned, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fostered debate around best practices and how approaches to philanthropy have evolved elsewhere in the world, and why. So I really feel that institutionalization can give good governance, a permanent front row seat in determining how philanthropy happens. So it's probably worth really describing what philanthropic good governance entails.
So let's take a step back. Without going on for too long, I would really emphasize on some important aspects of good governance. Having a clear charter to start off with that describes the culture and philosophy of a foundation, that's just essential. And then establishing a transparent and robust process for conducting due diligence on grantees for example. That's another point that's really important. Implementing a toolbox of KPIs that allow for measurement and structuring important feedback that is often overlooked. And lastly, the valuable role of independent oversight, we know how important that is. So via a suitably appointed Board of Directors, try to work with people who aren't afraid of giving independent advice, and pulling you up when you're going wrong. In fact, generally, there are many corporate governance lessons that can equally be applied to philanthropy. So let's start treating our philanthropy as we would our investments.
Badr: That's phenomenal advice. Thank you so much. You work a lot with youth, extremely talented women and men in the early stages of their careers who seek guidance and mentorship as they chart their future paths in life. What advice would you give to youth who are considering a career in the social sector today, whether that's through a private foundation, NGO, or nonprofit? And are there any lessons that you have learned from your involvement in the philanthropic sector that you would like to share with our audience?
Muna: Right. So securing a job in an NGO is usually very competitive. And you would think it may not be but it is just like joining a corporate. And in a way I think this is justifiable, as NGOs are in many instances less well funded. And so hiring mistakes can be very costly to the organization, as you can imagine. So I think it's critical that candidates believe in the organization's mission statement, perhaps even more so than when joining a corporate. So that's really important to be really vested into it. Looking for jobs you might be interested in and note what skills or experience they're looking for. NGOs tend to look at these transferable skills in a way that other corporate organizations perhaps don't.
So working for an NGO often requires multitasking, and is therefore a good way to broaden out your skill set rather than getting soloed into one particular area of business, that would probably happen in a corporate. So on a CV experience with an NGO can demonstrate depth, adaptive abilities and on the job learning, something most employers like to see. So working with passion for a cause can show commitment, while an NGOs work can often lead even overseas. So broadening experience further with different languages and cultures. I mean, how enriching can that be.
I think, ultimately, it will be your personal qualities, you know, your skills, your knowledge, your experience, that will determine whether you can get your foot on that first step of the ladder. So invest in yourself and develop skills that are valuable to the role you want. Another really important point is actually networking. So again, I have really seen this, Badr, firsthand. Working for an NGO can lead to interaction with senior figures from the world of business, as you can imagine working in partnerships on projects as part of their CSR initiatives. So these contacts can prove valuable to both becoming more senior within the NGO, or should you decide to re-enter the corporate world. So as I mentioned, I mean, I've seen this firsthand, and it has proven to be extremely beneficial to a young person's career.
Last but not least, really consider languages and embrace new cultures. Naturally it will depend on the geographies in which you wish to work, but generally speaking, NGOs appreciate multi linguist, so simply, you know, because of the international nature of their work, so a good excuse to brush up any existing language skills you have.
Badr: Again fantastic advice. A quick follow up question. I wanted your thoughts on this. Do you think that culturally in our region, I’m talking the Arab region here, we are prepared to embrace careers in the social sector as really viable and respected careers, career choices for youth? You know, sometimes there are impediments within families and within societies as to what's considered a respectable job or not. And this is something that has changed and evolved over time. Well, any thoughts on that?
Muna: I think the more governments really talk and private philanthropists talk about the valuable work, you know, that comes out of foundations and nonprofits, the more families are inclined to say to their youth, you know, it's actually an honor for you to be part of such a cause. So as I said at the start, it's really important that we start speaking about this valuable work. We need to share these experiences and the impact of the work that we're doing and that that really encourages more young people and more families to be wanting to be part of that.
Badr: That's a great point. And another example as to where the role of government in tandem with of course, other sectors, in this case, of course, the social sector is critical. So, in what ways do you think that the next generation of strategic philanthropists will change how the practice of philanthropy develops in the future, and how might technological shifts accelerate these changes?
Muna: So this is a topic that really interests me, as I have a daughter who already started expressing a keen interest in philanthropy. At her age, I recall having a somewhat one dimensional perspective of philanthropy, which was more in line with I would say, traditional charity at her age. So this next generation are already showing that they're more aware of their physical and social environment, and their relationship with it and their desire to impact it. So as a truly digital generation, I mean, their capacity to share ideas and data with others in their field is truly unprecedented. This holistic thinking is something that I believe will really continue to shape philanthropy well beyond the 2020s and the progress that has been made in recent years and really creating strategic philanthropy gives plenty of for the next generation to expand on with an exciting array of technological tools to aid them.
So technology and software in particular has really taken the limelight in the current pandemic. Its catalyzed video connectivity with anywhere in the world gives us almost in person contact with colleagues and thought leaders, grantees. So it dramatically reduces the need for travel. And it's associated with environmental impact, which is great. So other progress in the fields of collaboration databases, has allowed strategic philanthropy to adopt many tools at a low cost. And so these are the tools that were used by corporates, for example in the past. So these are also the tools that the next gen are very comfortable with and will use going forward. So in a way, strategic philanthropy is still in its early days, however, progress is rapidly being made. And there is a lot of innovation now taking place related to operating models, knowledge sharing, data analysis, impact measurement, that I believe will only be accelerated from here.
So to be honest, in a world that is increasingly digitized, there's going to be more data that we know what to do with, which in the world of philanthropy is a high quality problem to have.
Badr: Absolutely, no, I'm just as excited as you are about, I think the way in which technology can really help to boost impact and create that multiplier effect on impact. A quick follow-up question, if I may on that. Do you see any, you may not which is fine also, but do you see any potential pitfalls or downsides, maybe downside isn’t the right term, but pitfalls, perhaps, of increasing use of technology in helping to channel and direct philanthropic capital across borders?
Muna: I think we need to always have that good balance. And I've always spoken about how being on ground will never ever take, you know, that experience of on ground and hearing from your grantees is crucial. So you need to have the balance of yes, we will use technology because it has a greater impact from a numbers perspective, you can reach many more people at a quicker time. But that ultimate kind of on ground experience and being present as a philanthropist to hear from you know, those grantees is absolutely important.
Great point. Dear Muna, you and I both know that we could go on for hours on this subject matter. And whilst that's indeed tempting, I'm going to stop here and thank you once again, for always being such an inspiration. You and I only live 20 minutes from each other. But this dreadful pandemic has kept us from catching up in person. So I greatly look forward to that opportunity in the very near future, insha Allah. And in the meantime, wish you continued success and impact and everything that you do. Thank you once again.
Thank you, Badr, it was a pleasure having this talk. Thank you.