Case Study: How the Emirates Foundation adopted a venture philanthropy approach

Emirates Foundation represents a case where practices of good governance and management, along with adopting innovative solutions to long-standing problems, have resulted in a viable model in Venture Philanthropy

Emirates Foundation underwent a restructuring a few years ago to adopt a Venture Philanthropy approach, and in the process, it condensed its core departments and restructured its organizational hierarchy to create a more cohesive direction.

According to a case study conducted by the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy, Civic Engagement and Responsible Business, this transformation made the foundation more sustainable and impact-centric while retaining 80 percent of its workforce.

The independent philanthropic organization was set up by the government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi to facilitate public-private funded initiatives to improve the welfare of youth across the United Arab Emirates.

In an attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of the Emirates Foundation’s grant-making business model in delivering positive social value to the country, the board of directors had decided to conduct a review of the foundation. They wanted to know whether the organization was creating long-term systemic change, and accordingly, deliver work that was more impactful, measurable and scalable.

The evaluation showed that the problems lay in the lack of focus and clear strategic mission and vision, which had hindered the organization’s ability to deliver long-term scalable impact.

On the micro level, the foundation was spreading its resources and outcomes thinly by working across several sectors with a focus on financial, rather than technical support, leading to a dilution of impact and making it harder to measure.

Add to that a mission and model that was not clearly communicated due to inconsistencies and “muddled messages,” and the result was a lack of internal organizational cohesion and effectiveness.

Other challenges included vague organizational objectives, unclear reporting lines and static jobs with limited room for professional growth and skill development.

This forced the company to start restructuring and implement reforms.

Launching the reforms
In November 2011, the reforms started by the appointment of new CEO Clare Woodcraft, an advocate of a philanthropic model that took a market-based approach and delivered scalable and sustainable outcomes.

Woodcraft’s first order of business was realigning the team to focus on sustainable social investment.

Her first tangible reform implementation was the launch of the Venture Philanthropy business model, which focuses on long-term social investment instead of short-term grants.

“Venture philanthropy for development is an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy that combines a variety of financial and non-financial resources to identify, analyze, coordinate and support self-sustaining, systemic and scalable (for and not-for profit) solutions to development challenges aimed at achieving the greatest impact,” according to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Designing the reforms
The tangible steps that were taken to design and implement the reforms included creating a management team consisting of senior executives that would drive the organizational change.

“This meant overcoming issues such as information overload due to siloed departments, disjointed processes, lack of transparency, and inadequate cross-department communication that had led to delays, duplication of efforts, and neglect of other matters that negatively impacted the work of the foundation,” the case study explains.

By minimizing the number of core departments to three and re-establishing the hierarchical structure, reporting lines and communication became clearer and more condensed and the direction of the foundation was unified.

With that, came new job descriptions and new positions, and priority was given to current employees who could apply to three positions within the organization. The staff was constantly reassured that this did not resemble a downsizing process, but rather a process of refocusing the foundation’s direction.

The entity also incorporated sustainability and defined methodologies for impact evaluation under the umbrella of the Sustainability Department, which led to the systematic measurement of Key Performance Indicators, encouraging employees and giving them a sense of ownership. These steps brought with them a rebranding process and a proactive marketing and communications approach.

The report assures that the foundation was by no means considered a failure before the restructuring, but that the problem always lay in documenting and measuring what was done.

“Emirates Foundation represents a case where practices of good governance and management, along with adopting innovative solutions to long-standing problems, have resulted in a viable model in Venture Philanthropy,” the report concludes.

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