My job? Making myself redundant

As chief executive of the Emirates Foundation, the nation's leading charitable and philanthropic organisation aimed at youth development, Clare Woodcraft says it has world-class local talent and the 'essence of sustainability' is to work herself out of a job. Alice Haine reports.

Tawteen Leadership Academy. Courtesy Emirates Foundation.
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As chief executive of the Emirates Foundation, the nation's leading charitable and philanthropic organisation aimed at youth development, Clare Woodcraft says it has world-class local talent and the 'essence of sustainability' is to work herself out of a job.

For someone who grew up mistakenly believing that all Arabs rode camels and lived in tents in the desert, Clare Woodcraft has come a long way.

Not only has the British chief executive of the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development been working in the Middle East since her graduation 17 years ago but she can also speak and write Arabic fluently.

In fact, her professional and personal life is so firmly rooted in the Arab world that even her British accent has been replaced by a dialect that reflects her years in the region.

But it's her absolute passion for this part of the world that has secured her high-flying career in socio-economic development, and the leadership of one of the region's most prominent philanthropic foundations.

Ms Woodcraft joined the Emirates Foundation in November last year at a time when it was undergoing huge change. The illustrious board of directors, led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had decided to carry out a review, hiring external consultants to help them to identify a new strategic direction.

They came to two conclusions: unlike the era of the foundation's launch in 2005, the social sector is now packed with charitable initiatives and the foundation needed to ensure it wasn't duplicating the efforts of others. Secondly, because the organisation had grown organically since its inception, it had ended up with a much wider remit than it started with.

Ms Woodcraft goes so far as to say the foundation, which had an expenditure of around Dh90 million last year, was suffering from "mission creep".

"You focus on a particular area and then your mission starts to creep over time and you end up with multiple stakeholders asking you to get involved in multiple areas. It dilutes your impact and all of us working in the philanthropy sector need to be clear that our core purpose is effect.

"It's not about how much money we spent or the partner organisations we worked with, it's about how many people's lives we impacted positively."

With that in mind, the board of directors chose to streamline their operations, announcing last month that the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy was relaunching as the Emirates Foundation for Youth Development with a core focus on young people aged 15 to 35.

The change may seem obvious to some. The UAE is a rapidly expanding nation with the youth of today playing a vital role in its future success. But the next generation is facing a number of issues that could be counterproductive to that success.

There are between 30,000 to 40,000 unemployed young people in the UAE, twice the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, and many of those in employment are ignoring opportunities in the private sector in favour of the public sector.

"We are now asking, what are the core developmental goals for young people in this country?" says Ms Woodcraft. "What are the challenges they face, the opportunities they need and how can we support that?"

The decision to bring Ms Woodcraft on board was key. She was deputy director of Shell Foundation's social investment portfolio, and her corporate background brought a very different skill set to the table.

Unlike Emirates Foundation's previous grant-making portfolio, in which organisations received funds for scientific and social research and education or arts projects, Ms Woodcraft believed it was time to take on a more integrated approach to giving money.

The technical term for the new business model is venture philanthropy, recognising that to achieve and sustain change there needs to be a move away from quick fixes.

"The days of cheque writing are over," says Ms Woodcraft, who moved to the UAE in 2002. "It's about engaging and working with the individual you are supporting. Before we might have provided a grant and the organisation would have gone away and implemented their programme. Now we are going to be an integral part of that implementation, challenging them on it and finding them technical support."

Just as a venture capitalist would operate, venture philanthropy is a hands-on approach but one that should ignite social enterprise rather than commercially viable businesses.

Ms Woodcraft uses the example of the Tasneem chocolate factory in Fujairah, an initiative supported by the foundation for the past three years that employs 15 young women with special needs, to make luxury chocolates.

The foundation is now analysing how it can produce enough chocolate to become a sustainable entity supporting its own operating costs.

"That is the core essence of venture philanthropy," says Ms Woodcraft.

Help 15 young women with disabilities in one emirate and it's hard to make a difference. Replicate that model across the nation and make it financially viable and there's a chance you can not only create social enterprise but also improve employment opportunities for those with special needs.

"You can then start some kind of systemic change," she says. "For us, success would be creating initiatives across the UAE to demonstrate that employment of young people with disabilities is feasible in a business-based fashion. Others might follow up and then you start to get a structural shift with young people with disabilities becoming a critical part of the labour force."

To make all this happen, the foundation also needs to change the way they team up with the private sector. In the past they often approached corporate sponsors to help them fund one-off projects with a short-term aim. Now they will promote strategic long-term social-investment programmes.

"A core part of our role now is to help the business sector to create more strategic investment and move away from PR-driven CSR. Socio-economic development takes decades. I would challenge anybody who says a two-year commitment to one theme can generate saleable impact. I think it's very important the business sector wakes up to the need to commit to one area that's aligned with their business and to go at it for five, 10 or even 15 years."

It's this mission to drive a regional awakening of the importance of a new kind of philanthropy that motivated Ms Woodcraft to take on the job. She had only just arrived in London for a new role at Shell when the Foundation approached her.

"It was the first time I'd worked in the UK in my entire career and when I was first asked, I was like 'don't be silly, I've barely unpacked'."

But the opportunity was too big to turn down. Globally, philanthropy is a trillion-dollar capital market and philanthropic funds are only going to increase - something Ms Woodcraft believes has to be managed effectively.

"It's hugely important that the financing of socioeconomic development is both accountable and transparent. It's too easy for foundations to say: 'Yup, we saved the planet and here's a glossy brochure on how we did it' with smiley faces. That's not good enough."

Ms Woodcraft saw at first hand, during several years working as a volunteer in Palestine, how throwing money at aid doesn't necessarily pay off.

The daughter of an environmental policy adviser father and an entrepreneur mother, she developed an interest in the Arab world during a year in Paris as part of her degree in modern languages.

There she made several Arab friends, becoming fascinated by the historical and political ties between the UK and the Arab region and also slightly horrified at how little she knew about Arabic culture.

At 19 she decided to learn Arabic, partly because a friend challenged her by saying a Briton could never learn the language. After becoming actively involved in issues relating to Palestine at university, she travelled regularly to the West Bank and Gaza, moving there permanently to work as a volunteer after completing a master's degree in social development. Her work ignited a move into journalism followed by a number of corporate communications roles.

And it's through a career teaming corporate investment with social need that has led Ms Woodcraft to her mindset today.

Her next challenge is to ensure the Emirates Foundation's new focus on youth is not distorted.

The fund wants to become a one-stop-shop authority on youth development with three key themes taking precedence - social inclusion, community engagement and leadership and empowerment.

Social inclusion will focus on debt, through a new financial literacy programme, and on disability. Community engagement will expand its Takatof project - a volunteering initiative with Emiratis working on projects as diverse as Abu Dhabi's Formula One Grand Prix or renovating schools in the poorer regions - and on Sanid, the National Emergency Response Volunteer Programme, which trains young people to assist the emergency services in local and international crises.

Finally the development and leadership theme will continue the work already started by the Foundation to build a bridge between the public and the private sector.

For projects that no longer fall under the foundation's remit, the fund will continue to support those it is committed to and hand others, such as its arts and culture portfolio, to organisations more focused in that area.

With talk also of setting up an in-house research centre to aggregate information on the organisation's core issues and act as a think tank to the wider community, Ms Woodcraft has a lot on her plate.

And while she is relishing the challenge of overseeing the whole process, she also believes this is a short-term career move for her.

"I see my role as a transitionary one. There is sufficient local capacity inside this organisation to run a world-class foundation that's delivering high impact. So my job is to make myself redundant.

"To me that's the essence of sustainability. I'm sure I won't be here in 10 or even five years time."

Even if Ms Woodcraft is no longer at the Emirates Foundation, it's highly likely she will still be in the Middle East.

"There's clearly some bizarre connection between me and the Arab world which I've never really understood. It's a very strong, deep connection. My parents think I'm weird, but they've grown to live with it now."