In a country where women aren’t allowed to drive, let alone vote, hold office, or do much of anything without a male guardian, what kind of role can a woman play in philanthropy? In Saudi Arabia, a significant one, in the admittedly exceptional case of Her Royal Highness Princess Banderi bint Abdulrahman Al Faisal. Princess Banderi has been the Director General of the King Khalid Foundation since its inception in 1999.
To a degree, she was groomed for the job. Her mother and grandmother were active role models of formal and informal philanthropy throughout her childhood. To ensure that she was not a “spoiled” child, they would have her accompany them on visits to nonprofits to listen to discussions on women’s rights, roles, and responsibilities within their community.
After graduating from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government with a master’s in public policy in 1998, Princess Banderi accepted the Directorship with some reluctance. She was apprehensive about her preparedness and qualifications for the role, but her gender wasn’t an obvious disqualifier. In fact, women in Saudi Arabia have frequently assumed The King Khalid Foundation leadership positions in foundations, nonprofits, and non-governmental organizations. (And, starting in 2015, they will be allowed to participate in the elective process.) If anything, the Princess says, her gender is a bonus—she’s allowed to be more aggressive and outgoing and “has nothing to lose.”
Although the Princess is traditional in many ways—for example, she has described the enveloping abaya as a relief because she doesn’t have to decide what to wear—in some respects she has been surprisingly bold. Last year, for example, she gave the go-ahead for a newspaper advertisement against domestic violence—a striking full-page picture of a woman with a black eye clearly visible under her burqa. Underneath the image a slogan read, “Some things can’t be covered,” and a list of phone numbers for local domestic abuse shelters. As the country's first-ever anti-domestic abuse advertisement, the campaign was as shocking as it was powerful, but Princess Banderi, who approved it, says she doesn’t understand the controversy. “My media and PR team were a bit nervous going into this, saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I didn’t understand why. I don’t understand what is so controversial. Who will say, ‘Yes, it’s okay for women to be beaten up’?”
During her tenure, Princess Banderi has worked to build formal structures within the foundation, institutionalizing measurements and evaluations. She was handed a blank canvas and admits that making mistakes fast became part of her learning process. The Princess describes her management style as “growing organically” and strives to keep up pressure on the foundation’s impact not only for her local community but for the entire country.
One of the most critical discoveries has been the overwhelming need for capacity building in Saudi Arabian nonprofits. Princess Banderi focuses first on sustainability, not dependency. The foundation assists with strategic planning, mentoring and program development. Banderi has coached philanthropists and other foundations in the realities on the ground, including the need for program-building funds to ensure a robust nonprofit system.
And, perhaps to ensure continuity, she has also established the Princess Banderi Al Faisal Fellowship at the Kennedy School to support students from the Arab League. Women applicants get preference.