An Interview with Shenouda Bissada
1) What is your role at Alfanar and why did you decide to join the organisation?
Over the past 6 years, I have been leading Alfanar’s Egypt branch which was established back in 2004 by Alfanar’s founder the late Tarek Ben Halim.
I joined the organisation because of my personal background as a finance and development person which mirrored the venture philanthropy approach that aimed to bridge the gap between investment and social development, so I found it a natural fit.
Over many years, I saw excellent development projects disappear once their funding expired. Lack of sustainability is a fatal disease for social work. One of my core tasks at Alfanar is to help social entities establish a business arm that can subsidize their social work.
Alfanar was and is still a nascent, nimble organisation, seeking to find and nurture small initiatives and entrepreneurs in innovative ways. This was what I needed and it has fulfilled me for the past 6 years.
2) Tell us about your life prior to Alfanar (i.e. what did you study, where did you live/work?) Why did you decide to join the organisation?
I studied Finance and Business Administration and did my MBA with the goal of pursuing a career in the banking sector. I was lucky to join a renowned bank early in my career, in the field of loan quality control. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was not what I really wanted and that I needed to find a deeper meaning for my life. I spent some time exploring different options until I came across the world of nonprofits and philanthropy. Encountering disadvantaged communities and entrepreneurs doing their best to help was inspiring, eye-opening and very fulfilling; I realized that, once and for all, that this is where I belong.
In the following 20 years, I did in fact use my skills to navigate the world of philanthropy; managing development projects, helping structure project designs, monitoring programme implementation, raising funds, training staff and others - and I did that at different levels; including small, local and large multinational organisations in the Middle East and North Africa.
What many people may not know is that the private sector skills and mode of work is what lacks in nonprofits the most. With a little experience on HR, governance, financing…etc. one can unleash the real potential of entrepreneurs and impact the lives of many disadvantaged communities. This is exactly what Alfanar does; it invests in social enterprises and strengthens their internal systems to impact more lives, in a better way. In 2011, I decided to join the Alfanar family, which was a natural match. One of the quotes I like most about venture philanthropy (VP) is one developed by EVPA (The European Venture Philanthropy Association) stating that venture philanthropy is about matching the soul of philanthropy with the spirit of investment. Since then, Alfanar has doubled its yearly funding, tripled its number of beneficiaries and is increasingly known as the main VP organization in Egypt.
3) Tell us about your most recent innovation - the social enterprise mapping in Egypt. What was the idea behind this exercise, and how did it come about?
Thank you for asking that question. This is an interesting initiative for Alfanar and let me give you a bit of background first. It was in February 2011, at Tahrir Square, that Egyptian youth representing almost a quarter of Egypt’s population discovered their real potential and their ability to make a difference. In my view, it was not about overthrowing a specific regime, but about discovering that everyone has a role in this life and that together we can do much. Small social initiatives started blooming all around Egypt needing funding and more importantly guidance. Many of those entrepreneurs decided to improve the decaying quality of children’s education, where Egypt ranks as second from last in the GCR2016 global ranking. Alfanar was finding them through connections, but then decided it is a must to map them and understand their needs - to help better structure our interventions to aid them.
Alfanar reached out to SODIC with the idea of mapping education social enterprises in Egypt. We launched a call for proposals that led us to Innovety, a visionary company helping businesses to achieve their potential growth through innovation management. With them, the exercise gradually developed into mapping the education social enterprise ecosystem.
4) What were the key findings, and what do you think are the implications for the future?
Fully accredited education programmes were found to be a small minority of the entities, while the large majority of entities are equally divided between two groups: entities providing subject matters but as extra-curricular activities (eg. Science, Arabic, English, STEM) or entities providing Arts, Culture and soft skills/personality development programmes.
Many recently-established organisations are registered as for-profits rather than nonprofits, which reflects the new social trend of establishing social enterprises rather than traditional charities.
Many large nonprofits have education as one of their major high-quality programmes and are doing meaningful impact in it. In the past, multiple-programme mega-organizations were sometimes seen as non-focused.
To put that in its context, Egypt has established a visionary presidential council for education with the task to reform education in Egypt, with the support of the private sector and civil society. This means that during the coming 5 years, many of the entities described above would have an unprecedented opportunity to grow within the national growth stream, professionalize their models and impact more children. This is an opportunity also for investors to put money into something that has a high potential for success.
5) What do you think the future is for venture philanthropy in the Arab world and why do you think Alfanar is an important part of that future?
In the last 5 years the number of social initiatives in the Arab World has boomed, providing a fertile soil for social growth. Those initiatives employ young people who are technology-literate, believe in themselves and are willing to make real transformation happen. They fully understand the decline of funding coming to social purposes and are struggling to build self-sustainable social enterprises.
This places VP in an excellent position; better than ever. Through seed-funding, technical support, provision of exposure and guidance, VPs can unleash great potential and impact many lives.
Alfanar is excited to announce that we have created a new online portal to share our social enterprise mapping results! Visit the portal here.