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Reaching new heights with philanthropy education

Rebecca Riccio, left, director of the Social Impact Lab, with Yazeed Mohammed Alfakhri, philanthropic advisor to the Juffali family and assistant professor at Prince Sultan University..jpg

Note: Some of the questions in this interview have been edited for brevity and clarity.

A Northeastern University professor has partnered with folks in Saudi Arabia to develop an experiential philanthropy education program in Saudi universities.

Rebecca Riccio, director of Northeastern’s Social Impact Lab, is sharing her knowledge of philanthropy education to develop a course that is socially, culturally, economically, and legally appropriate in Saudi’s context.

“Saudi Arabia has a very rich cultural tradition of philanthropy. The role of charitable giving and philanthropy in Islam is very rich. There’s so much to learn from our partners about those practices and how we can incorporate that amazing foundation of giving into work we’re doing that strives to make charitable giving as strategic and collaborative as possible,” Riccio said. “If we can demonstrate through this collaboration that the power of that collaborative model can work in Saudi, hopefully it will become a model that we’ll pursue in other countries, as well.”

Launched in October 2015, the Global Philanthropy Initiative aims at expanding strategic philanthropy practices throughout Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. The collaboration began last year after the Juffali family, who owns one of Saudi Arabia’s largest global conglomerates, made a generous gift to the Social Impact Lab, whose mission is to help students turn idealism into action.

Yazeed Mohammed Alfakhri, the philanthropic advisor to the Juffali family and an assistant professor at Prince Sultan University, spent a week at Northeastern in January learning about the lab’s teaching methodology, which incorporates real-dollar grant-making into an academic course as a way of enhancing core learning objectives and exposing students to the social, ethical, economic, and practical challenges of developing and funding effective strategies to advance social change.

Alfakhri observed Riccio’s strategic philanthropy and nonprofit management class to get a sense of what the course is like. He said he plans to use the concept of Riccio’s course as a foundation to create a similar class in Saudi that would follow the country’s implementation and practice context.

“We’re using the knowledge of the lab, which is already known as a leading thinker, innovator in this area and we’re glad how they are flexible in sharing and adapting the knowledge and considering other factors that could also play a major role in what philanthropy looks like in Saudi Arabia,” Alfakhri said. “We’re looking to put together their knowledge, the context of Saudi Arabia and the vision of [Khaled] Juffali as a philanthropist.”

Juffali’s vision, Alfakhri said, is to advance the practice of strategic philanthropy.

Sitting at a small table in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs’ suite in Renaissance Park, Alfakhri enjoyed breakfast on Jan. 14 as he explained the concept behind the Global Philanthropy Initiative and how he envisions it playing out in Saudi Arabia.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish through this ambitious three-year plan?

A: We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but we want to learn from what other people are doing and be in a good position. The aim of this initiative is to learn from Northeastern because they already are in a good position in terms of philanthropy. One of the things that we’re looking for is to introduce a philanthropy course. We’ll adopt the course to better fit the context of Saudi Arabia.

Q: What steps do you plan to take to accomplish this?

A: The plan is focused more on the academic course that will be introduced in Saudi Arabia and the target is the Saudi student. It would be the first course in philanthropy in Saudi Arabia and the region. The most important part is sharing knowledge. We came up with the idea of having a platform for people to discuss and share knowledge, and we can also share our experience. We are still in the planning stage. We are moving to what the platform should look like, its features and how we can develop this. This week, we discussed the plan for the next three years and we envisioned what the Global Philanthropy Initiative for Saudi Arabia would look like. We’ve started the planning and the next stage is the implementation part.

Q: When do you hope to start the implementation stage?

A: We are in the negotiation process with a university in Saudi Arabia to host the program and get their approval. We don’t want to host it in just any university. We need to host it in a university with the same level as Northeastern to still get the high quality research. We’re hoping to start teaching it in the fall. I’m going to teach the first course and it would be a pilot study. Once it is successful and we get all the materials, then the second stage would be to teach the course in many other universities in Saudi Arabia.

Q: What are some of the barriers and challenges to implementing this plan?

A: One of the challenges is that we will not teach the course as is in Saudi Arabia. However, we will customize a curriculum that is culturally appropriate to Saudi Arabia and honors Islamic philanthropic traditions. Another challenge is that the number of charities in Saudi Arabia is far less when compared with the U.S., and this may limit students’ decisions in choosing the charity that they would like to support.

We are aiming high and we are trying to develop the nonprofit sector in Saudi Arabia. Our ambitious plan includes many projects that we are planning to do over the next three years and we hope to accomplish all of our objectives.

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