Global Engagement: Reflections from Saudi Arabia

by Kyle Caldwell, Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy

If you could turn back the hands of time and observe the formation of U.S. philanthropy, what would you see? An opportunity similar to that came in an email I received from the King Fhad University for Petroleum and Minerals in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. Their Center of Excellence in Development of Non-Profit Organizations asked us to provide our proven Grantmaking School program to members of the emerging philanthropic sector in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

At first, this invitation seemed somewhat out of place. Why would a university in Saudi Arabia seek to promote philanthropy skills, and why would this rather culturally conservative university reach out to the Johnson Center at Grand Valley State University? The answer is that they need to develop a social sector to prepare for oncoming economic and social changes precipitated by the fall in oil prices. The Kingdom must build experienced practitioners in philanthropy and improve their practices in order to build an effective social safety net.

This coming transformation is driven by the fact that current lifestyles in the Kingdom are built on a market price of $100 or more for a barrel of oil. Current prices remain closer to $50, and as the world turns away from fossil fuels, there is an expectation that these prices are the new normal. That is why the Saudi King developed Vision 2030, calling for a massive transformation toward a knowledge-based economy that will build a middle class but will require a social safety net.

The goal of the outreach to the Johnson Center was to help build the capacity of new practitioners in this emerging sector. Before we could accept, we had to examine our principles around global engagements. This one was especially difficult given the vast contrasts in cultures — one based on core democratic principles and the other strictly adherent to Islam and grounded in the teachings of the Quran. Both cultures have strong ties to giving, but with vastly different approaches. We articulated a core set of engagement principles, including the opportunity to make a significant impact, safety (both physical and psychological) for our staff and consultants, and an opportunity for the Johnson Center to learn. As this opportunity met those standards, we moved to focus on how to engage.


Currently, organized philanthropy in the Kingdom represents the traditional “checkbook” approach, with strong ties to business interests. There is also a strong desire to adhere to the core teachings of Islam, articulated in the Quran as “Zakat” (charity). As one of the five pillars practiced by all Muslims, Zakat explains the personal responsibility that each Muslim has to ease the economic hardship of others and to strive towards eliminating inequality. Within Zakat there are five ways to practice including giving to the community where wealth was earned and paying to charity in proportion to their income. These beliefs direct the way philanthropy is practiced in the Kingdom, including a strong emphasis on place-based grantmaking. This is but one of the simultaneously similar and contrasting approaches to philanthropy. It will be interesting to observe the blending of these faith-based philosophies and very practical philanthropic practices.

Going global with our teaching and learning of philanthropy can expand and deepen our understanding of our own sector, culture and core beliefs. At the same time, we are able to engage and perhaps influence the ways philanthropy is practiced in other communities or nations. Saudi Arabia wouldn’t have been our first choice of a market to explore our global expansion, but through this one encounter we found a new frontier in philanthropy. Isn’t that what global engagement should do?

Kyle Caldwell is the Executive Director of the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy. He traveled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in May 2017 to help lead a training from the Johnson Center’s The Grantmaking School.


  1. Reply
    Susie Barnes says

    I would feel much better about this relationship if I saw a few women in these pictures. Promoting the welfare of women in their country might be a very good start.

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