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June 22, 2009

Executive Education in Saudi Arabia

Ray Horton
Frank R. Lautenberg Professor of Ethics and Corporate Governance
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From left to right: Executive education account manager Alan Chen, Columbia Business School Professor Ray Horton, University of Massachusetts professor Brian Lickel, Professor Eric Abrahamson and Professor Daniel Ames. They recently returned from teaching a one-week program for nonprofit leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Horton, the faculty director of Social Enterprise Programs in Executive Education, shared his thoughts about the experience.

Let me say up front that the assignment with the King Khalid Foundation was one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences I’ve had as a professor. It was also one of the most challenging.

A little background for our assignment: There’s a strong tradition in the world of Islam for giving, which Saudi Arabians certainly live up to. Yet nonprofit organizations have not played a very important role in the country historically because many of the wealthy simply hand out money directly to those in need or to charities that distribute the funds without maximizing the impact of each riyal. However, a growing number of Saudi leaders now recognize that “street-level philanthropy” of this kind tends to sustain poverty rather than reduce it. One of them is Princess Banderi AR Al Faisal, the director general of the King Khalid Foundation.

A growing movement for development
Princess Banderi is leading a movement among Saudi foundations to channel more charitable giving to nonprofit organizations whose programs are designed to address the poverty issue through human development rather than handouts. The success of that strategy depends on the ability of nonprofit leaders to manage their organizations effectively. In recognition of this, the Princess and her colleagues designated management training for leaders of the nascent nonprofit movement as one of the Foundation’s key initiatives.

To this end the Foundation decided it would sponsor the first-ever Executive Education program for nonprofit leaders in Saudi Arabia. With the help and coordination of Dr. Natasha Matic, a strategic consultant to the Foundation, the Columbia Business School program was selected to bring that management training to Riyadh.

It wasn’t an easy program to develop or deliver. We academics can say all we want about the “fundamentals” of nonprofit management, but many fundamentals in the U.S. are not the same fundamentals in Saudi Arabia. We spent a great deal of development time in the months leading up to the program working on our presentations until they received Dr. Matic’s stamp of approval. We thought we were well prepared when we arrived in Riyadh, but we still had some lessons to learn ourselves.

Teaching past cultural differences
I could go on for a long time about the cultural differences that become readily apparent when New Yorkers arrive in Riyadh, but the most obvious difference, on the street and in the classroom, is the relationship between men and women.

I think all of the participants were a little discombobulated at first to discover that the training would be provided in one room rather than two, and that women out-numbered men two-to-one. It took a day for everybody to start feeling comfortable, including us, but by day two things were starting to go smoothly. By day three, the men and women were engaged in lively debate with each other over the strategy projects Eric Abrahamson had designed for them; by day four, Daniel Ames had women and men choosing to negotiate with each other rather than with a member of the same sex. And by day five, I had everyone in the room laughing at me after I illustrated the importance of not wasting scarce resources in reference to some nonprofit leaders in New York City who use chauffeured cars rather than subways to get around — forgetting for the moment that there is no public transportation in Riyadh and, to make matters worse, that Saudi women are not allowed to drive cars. So much for cultural sensitivity.

While it was interesting to see the male-female dynamic change in the course of the week, what impressed me most was the passion these people brought to their professional lives, women and men alike. Many of them run nonprofits with small or non-existent staffs, small or non-existent budgets, and small or non-existent boards, conditions of nonprofit life that would seem to be discouraging. But when you hear them talk about the importance of their missions and the scale of the problems they’re fighting you begin to understand how motivated they are to make their world a better place.

In the end, I know the participants were grateful to the King Khalid Foundation and to us for the learning experience they received. I’m grateful to have had the experience too.

Photo courtesy of Alan Chen