Legacy of a leader

Building on the achievements of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation is evolving into a strategic and results-driven organisation. In an exclusive interview, its founder describes this transition and explains how the foundation is introducing the next generation of Al Nahyans to their civic responsibilities

After the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan united seven desert emirates under one UAE flag, he spoke to his new people of unity and charity. “Real wealth is faithful, hard work that brings benefit to both people and a community,” he said, later adding: “What is the use of strong people who do not extend a hand to help the weak?”

Decades later, and Sheikh Zayed’s message is echoed firmly by his daughter-in-law, Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan. Through the work of her eponymous foundation, Sheikha Salama is building a philanthropic organisation that works in parallel with the mandate of her husband Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

“I truly believe that we enrich our own humanity when we seek to serve others,” she tells Philanthropy Age.

The inspiration for the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, which was launched in 2010 and has so far disbursed aid across a range of issues and interests in the UAE, came from Sheikha Salama’s desire to formalise the charitable giving she had engaged in all her life. She believes that the questions she asked herself will be familiar to many others involved in giving: “Am I truly having an impact, and if so, can that impact be greater?”

With the help of an experienced international team headed by Dr Salvatore LaSpada, a former head of the Institute for Philanthropy and associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, Sheikha Salama has set about recalibrating her family’s giving along strategic lines. Outcomes are everything, programmes are modelled on the rigorous examination of data and input from experts and stakeholders, and it is recognised that without bringing the best out of its youth, the UAE will waste its greatest resource: its people.

Focusing on three key pillars of interest – arts, culture and heritage; education; and health – the foundation is committed to long-term investment and engagement. It is, Sheikha Salama says, “generational work”, and this applies as much to her children as it does the children whose lives will be enriched by the opportunities the foundation provides in the coming decades.

Very deliberately, the foundation’s key pillars of interest have been aligned to reflect the interests of the next generation of Al Nahyans. Even outlying absorptions are catered to: young family members may draw on a ‘Special Interests and Explorations’ fund, which funnels money to causes outside of the foundation’s official remit, but about which they may be particularly passionate.

Recent recipients of capital from this fund include a number of animal welfare organisations, a particular interest of Sheikha Salama’s 12-year-old daughter, Hassa. Funds have also been granted to the Fatima bint Mohamed Initiative, an income-generation project for war widows in Afghanistan established by another daughter, Fatima. A third daughter, Shamma, is fundraising on behalf of a special needs centre, for which she is a fierce advocate.

“We built out the foundation very much with our children in mind, and with their interests as guideposts on what areas to focus on,” reveals Sheikha Salama. “In terms of the special fund, this is something that the best family foundations do internationally. “I have come to see that this blends the best of two worlds: we maintain focus on our key goals, while recognising that the active engagement of the children is equally important.”

In this manner, Sheikha Salama intends to use the foundation as a way of introducing her children to their responsibilities as custodians of a nation founded by their grandfather just 41 years ago. Her children may have been born into royalty, yet she expects them to continue the great tradition of giving for which the Al Nahyan family has become known.

“The foundation gives the children the opportunity to learn about new ideas and new approaches to social development, and it puts them in direct contact with fascinating individuals in the community who are crafting new solutions to social issues,” she says. “It allows them to have an even greater sense of agency in the world. And it gives them the opportunity to contribute to the nation that their grandfather founded.”

She speaks with great pride of the enthusiasm with which her young children have so far embraced the opportunities provided by the foundation: as the children have grown, so too have their roles within the organisation. “It has been enormously gratifying to me as a mother,” she says, “to see the ways in which my children have become involved in philanthropy, and to watch them as they develop their passions and commitments.”

Sheikha Salama’s passion for the arts is reflected in her eldest daughter, Mariam, who has taken the lead on the foundation’s arts, culture and heritage funding, and who also serves as chair of the foundation. Sheikha Salama's eldest son Khalid, a voracious reader, is working hard to develop funding initiatives for libraries, reading drives and even book clubs. Another daughter, Shamsa, herself a mother of four young children, is spearheading work on early childhood education.

Sheikha Salama insists that she and her family are just starting out on their philanthropic journey, and hesitates when asked to offer advice to those plotting their own foray into giving. Nevertheless, she can identify key principles that now inform her own approach to philanthropy.

“We’ve learned that in building strategies in the areas where we are funding, it is essential that we build on platforms of knowledge,” she says. “We ask ourselves: what can the experts and stakeholders teach us about the latest thinking in our fields of endeavour, what has been tried previously and worked or not worked, and where are the gaps where we can add value?”

In addition, she urges, philanthropists should not be afraid to take risks, as testing new ideas and approaches represents “some of the best use of philanthropic capital”. Would-be philanthropists should furthermore approach their endeavours with gratitude and humility. “You need gratitude for the opportunity to be able to share your resources with others, and humility at the great and difficult task ahead of you, namely that of achieving impact.”

Finally, commitment is key. Perhaps the greatest challenge for any foundation is that of maintaining focus over time. The more the foundation achieves, the more Sheikha Salama wants to do, and it takes significant discipline, she says, to stay concentrated on the foundation’s three key areas of interest. Essentially, the driving force of the foundation still springs from the passions of its founder and her children, bringing to Sheikha Salama’s mind a quote by the British poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.”

“Zakat or charitable giving is one of 
the core pillars of Islam, and is a requirement mandated in the Quran,” she says. “Nevertheless, I must confess that I have derived so much satisfaction in helping in whatever small way I can, that it has come to feel more as a source of joy than obligation.

“The foundation has given me an opportunity to give back, and it has challenged me to do so in a way that seeks to have true impact,” she adds. “Also, it has enabled me to work alongside my children in new and wonderful ways. It has been an enormously joyful experience.”

Case study: State of the arts

The arts are one of the key focus areas of the Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. The organisation has identified four strategic goals in its bid to enable young UAE nationals to achieve their potential:

To support emerging Emirati artists, the foundation has launched a fellowship scheme in cooperation with the Rhode Island School of Design. The programme incorporates academic courses, technical workshops, professional skills training, peer critique, and international travel as well as creative production grants. “This kind of focus on human capacity building is central to much of our work,” says Sheikha Salama.

To build new audiences for the arts, the foundation is transforming a series of warehouses in Abu Dhabi into an arts district that will include studios, an artist residency programme in collaboration with the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, a non-profit exhibition space, and an arts park and library. “In May we even sponsored a learning trip for 10 14-year-old students to learn about careers in the arts,” says Sheikha Salama. “The youngsters spent a week in Tokyo meeting with curators, gallerists and artists.”

Sheikha Salama’s passion, be it as a collector or as a promoter of arts education and community engagement, is lending great support to the government’s efforts to transform the UAE into a global hub for the arts. A highlight this year has been the foundation’s support for the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

“We are enormously proud of the fact that the UAE is the first Arab nation to have a permanent pavilion in Venice and the work of this year’s featured artist, Mohamed Kazem, was received with enormous enthusiasm internationally,” says Sheikha Salama. “As part of our support for the UAE Pavilion we are also supporting 18 interns, university students and recent graduates, to serve as cultural ambassadors.”

Finally, as parts of its efforts to capture and disseminate the UAE’s cultural heritage, the foundation supports the annual Qasr Al Hosn Festival, a showcase for music, dance and Emirati culture, and the Lest We Forget project, an exhibition and accompanying book of Emirati photography