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Abdul Latif Jameel: Empowering Communities to Help Themselves

June 27, 2017

At the annual summit of the Family Business Council-Gulf (FBCG) in Dubai, Foundation Center's Lisa Philp led a plenary session on philanthropy in action in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. She was joined by Hassan Jameel, deputy president and vice chair, Abdul Latif Jameel Domestic Operations, and Caroline Seow, director of sustainability, Family Business Network International. Philp is working with FBCG and FBN International to shine a light on thoughtful and sustainable philanthropy in the GCC. This post — part of a year-long series here on PhilanTopic that addresses major themes related to the center’s work — is an adaptation of a case study she wrote on lessons learned from Community Jameel.

Jameel_philpAbdul Latif Jameel is an international diversified business with operations in seven major industries — transportation, engineering and manufacturing, financial services, consumer products, land and real estate, advertising and media, and energy and environmental services. Founded in 1945 as a small trading business that later evolved into a Toyota distributorship in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the company has achieved this scale and market success in just over seven decades.

The company's entrepreneurial founder, the late Abdul Latif Jameel, saw that better personal transportation could empower businesses and individuals and, in turn, advance the economic development of his nation. With that vision to guide him, he established an extensive operations infrastructure and over time built the largest vehicle distribution network in Saudi Arabia. Along the way, the company developed comprehensive expertise across the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey (or "MENAT"), the region in which it operates, fashioning a reputation for building the "infrastructure of life." Today, Abdul Latif Jameel has a presence in more than 30 countries and employs 17,000 people from over 40 nationalities.

Jameel was a visionary and dynamic entrepreneur who dedicated his family and company to meeting the needs of his fellow Saudis. In 2003, Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel, who had been named chair and CEO of the company a decade earlier, created Abdul Latif Jameel Community Services, or "Community Jameel," as it is known today. Community Jameel has evolved into a sustainable social enterprise organization focused on six priority areas: job creation, global poverty alleviation, food and water security, arts and culture, education and training, and health and social. From its headquarters in Jeddah, the organization coordinates a rage of programs focused on the development of individuals and communities in the MENAT region and beyond.

Holding the Mirror

Community Jameel's mission is to empower people to improve their lives and the lives of those around them — in effect, to "help communities help themselves." It's a mission that is distinct from many charitable organizations in the region, in that it seeks to address global societal and economic problems at the source rather than merely mitigating their symptoms. Three generations of the Jameel family are engaged with the organization, honoring Abdul Latif Jameel's commitment to sustainable development and the pursuit of positive social change.

Initiatives under the Community Jameel umbrella include:

  • Bab Rizq Jameel, a jobs program that has helped create more than 720,000 job opportunities globally since 2003, including over 490,000 in Saudi Arabia;
  • Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, a global network of affiliated professors based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Grameen-Jameel, a pioneering microfinance program supporting the MENAT region;
  • Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab at MIT, which conducts research to help combat worldwide water scarcity and food supply shortages;
  • Jameel Gallery for Islamic Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Jeddah Sculpture Gallery, and Jameel Houses of Traditional Arts in Jeddah, Cairo, and Scotland; and
  • MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Start-up Competition, which promotes entrepreneurship and innovation across the Arab world.

Connecting the Dots

The seeds for the successful Bab Rizq Jameel (BRJ) job-creation program were planted in 2003 when Abdul Latif Jameel (the company) took some of its vehicles and trained unemployed young men to become taxi drivers. Adhering to its philosophy of sustainability and economic independence, the company asked those who received automobiles to pay them off, interest-free, as they earned money from driving. Over time, young men participating in the program became taxi owners as well as drivers.

BRJ grew quickly and began to fund other entrepreneurial activities using the same principle of low- or no-interest loans targeting populations such as women working from home. Additional avenues included the establishment of employment service centers around the country to put those looking for work in touch with potential employers and setting up training programs to help unemployed Saudis obtain or sharpen their skills.

Over the years, BRJ has created programs that link job seekers and employers, offer interest-free loans to small-business entrepreneurs, and provide remote and home-based job opportunities. The team responsible for developing these job-creation initiatives recognized the need to inform and educate potential participants about their programs. Television campaigns become one way to spread the message; consultation opportunities at employment services centers were another. With the goal of providing consistently excellent customer service and being able to gauge whether a potential candidate for a program was serious enough about his future to stick with a new job or startup business, BRJ employment consultants themselves were asked to undergo continuous training.

The team also learned an important lesson about partnering with employers for its Direct Recruitment program. BRJ had to ensure that any employer it worked with would provide high-quality training and ongoing career development opportunities to program participants, not just short-term job opportunities. Because many employers were unaware of benefits that an employment center could bring them, reputable companies and other organizations had to be found and cultivated for inclusion in the BRJ database.

Government support of the program has been another success factor, thanks in part to BRJ's work to foster relationships with key officials, align its efforts with government employment goals, and take the time to explain experimental approaches and answer questions as models were developed. In addition, BRJ found that creating mutually beneficial partnership with existing organizations helped broaden employment-generating opportunities. This willingness to partner — to bring the right resources together at the right time to solve a problem, not just short-term but over the long-term — has informed the simple tagline the organization uses today: "Community Jameel — Together for Good."

Creating Impact

Jameel_panelOne goal of Abdul Latif Jameel's corporate strategy is to help "people who strive for better to have better: better means, better lives, better prospects." As Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel explains: "We can do this because we are determined in our quest for new potential. We succeed because, through our business and through Community Jameel, we never lose sight of why this matters."

This orientation is reflected in the evolution of Abdul Latif Jameel from a small distributorship into a diversified international conglomerate, of Community Jameel from a small experiment into a sustainable multi-faceted social enterprise, and of Bab Rizq Jameel from a small project into an organization that employs seven hundred people.

Community Jameel projects typically blend a Jameel family member's passion and desire to make a difference with experimentation; leverage the family business's expertise, people, and networks; and include a thorough analysis of the lessons learned. The initiatives launched and supported by Community Jameel are either owned and operated by Community Jameel itself or are organized and managed by external partners with relevant expertise. Examples of the latter include partnerships with MIT focused on global poverty alleviation, food and water security, and education initiatives; a microfinance partnership with Grameen Foundation; and partnerships to promote arts and culture with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Prince's School of Traditional Arts. Based on strong relationships, mutual respect, shared goals, and an entrepreneurial approach, all these efforts have grown organically over the years.

New BRJ initiatives often begin with research designed to understand needs in the community, an audit of available resources, and a small pilot to test the program. Pilots that have demonstrated success have been replicated in Egypt, Turkey, and Morocco. The organization keeps the door open for new collaborations, is always looking to increase the number of branches in countries already serviced, and welcomes new partnerships in countries not yet in its portfolio.

BRJ also seeks opportunities to support other Abdul Latif Jameel business units and activities. An example is corporate sponsorship. The company is the title sponsor of the Saudi Professional League, a soccer league with fourteen teams now known simply in Arabic as Dawry Jameel (or the Jameel League). Abdul Latif Jameel sees Dawry Jameel as an opportunity to bring people together, to entertain, to engage, and to contribute to the ongoing development of Saudi society. In just three years, BRJ has created more than ten thousand stadium jobs for young Saudis who work as snack sellers and field crew employees.

Its many achievements and the organization's success in generating job opportunities through its social media platforms resulted in BRJ receiving the Arab Social Media Influencers Award in the Corporate Social Responsibility category in 2015. A few years earlier, BRJ received an award from the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation for Entrepreneurs for "Best Initiative to Support Entrepreneurship in Arab Countries." And in 2008, Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel was presented with the King Abdul Aziz Medal of the First Order, Saudi Arabia's highest civilian honor, by His Majesty King Abdullah in recognition of his personal contribution to job-creation initiatives for young Saudi men and women.

Next Steps

In October 2016, BRJ signed a memorandum of understanding with Uber, the networked personal transportation company, to support job creation, education, and resources for Saudi nationals seeking opportunities in taxi ownership and operation. A month later, BRJ signed a second agreement with Careem, the MENAT region's leading app-based car booking service, to provide income and training opportunities for Saudi citizens who wish to work in the transportation services sector.

These collaborations reflect the shared interest of all parties in supporting Saudi citizens and creating more transportation jobs. BRJ's partnerships with Uber and Careem also are closely aligned with Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030," which calls for a prosperous, sustainable national economy based on making the most of the Saudi people's potential and the emerging "gig" economy.

Abdul Latif Jameel is constantly seeking out new markets, creating new job opportunities, developing new partnerships, and finding new ways to create value. All of it is done with a clear purpose: to help people advance their quality of life by unlocking their potential. Through Community Jameel, Abdul Latif Jameel is a pioneer in the MENAT region in driving positive social change. The work of BRJ and the social enterprise in which it is embedded has enabled the Jameel family to recognize and support the needs of tens of thousands of young people in the region.

The story of Abdul Latif Jameel, Community Jameel, and the Jameel family's philanthropic journey offers a number of helpful lessons for other family businesses and families:

1. Passion:To successfully engage family members over multiple generations, allow individuals to explore their unique passions for social causes. Members of the Jameel family are united in their passion for visual art — both traditional and contemporary — and they have leveraged this passion into programs that showcase world-class art, bring arts education to students, and support the careers of artists.

2. Experimentation: Don't be afraid to test new ideas. Experiment and learn. Then experiment again. Not everything will work, but the bigger obstacles to success and real impact are a failure to try and "planning paralysis" that limits action. BRJ started from a humble experiment involving ten young men. It has grown through smart pilot projects, iterative learning, and good strategy.

2. Community: Be sure to connect with the community you're hoping to serve, even if it's a country or an extended region. Too many philanthropists ignore this step and instead launch programs that do not take into account local needs and circumstances.

3. Expertise:Don't be afraid to hire advisors or staff with issue-based expertise and practical implementation knowledge for programs you choose to run yourself. For bigger initiatives, it may make more sense to partner with an international NGO with expertise and experience in the subject area and targeted geographic region.

4. Evolution:Just as family businesses must anticipate and adapt to changes in the marketplace, family philanthropy must also evolve to stay relevant. Finding a balance between sustaining financial support for older efforts that are working and advancing new opportunities can be a challenge, but the return is worth the effort.

Hassan Jameel offers the following advice: "Let your family's core business values also serve as guideposts for your giving. Ours are respect, improve, pioneer, and empower. We respect and consult with the people we are serving. We have feedback loops to help us improve our results. We pioneer through pilot projects that are of deep interest to family members. And we seek to empower communities with our efforts."

And he adds: "[I]t is important to pick a starting point and to allow your family the opportunity to experiment, learn, revise, and repeat."

May others find the inspiration to forge their own paths to success and significance.

Lisa Philp is a senior advisor at Foundation Center. You can contact her at llp@foundationcenter.org. For more posts in our FC Insight series, click here.

 

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