New Abu Dhabi innovation hub to boost social entrepreneurship

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A new social innovation hub in Abu Dhabi aims to redefine what charity means in the UAE.

Known as The Exchange, the space in Yas Mall has been created to help stimulate a new breed of nonprofit companies focused on addressing social challenges in a sustainable way.

Workshops, a series of expert speakers and tailor-made support groups for budding entrepreneurs will all be on hand.

The creator of the concept, the Authority of Social Contribution – Ma’an, opened the space this week and hopes the project will encourage a greater focus on community cohesion.

"At Ma'an, we're trying to change [the social impact ecosystem] from one-time charity offerings to a sustainable philanthropy approach," said Salama Al Ameemi, director general of the Authority of Social Contribution.

I hope [people will] come and visit The Exchange and learn more about how they can channel their visions and passion into projects that can make a lasting, positive change in our community.

Salama Al Ameemi

"I hope [people will] come and visit The Exchange and learn more about how they can channel their visions and passion into projects that can make a lasting, positive change in our community."

Ma’an was formed by the UAE government in February last year with the aim of strengthening collaboration between public and private sectors, as well as civil society,

It aims to promote a responsible third sector in which nonprofit associations can contribute to the building of connected local communities.

Currently in the Emirates, there is arguably a notable absence of smaller-scale nonprofits formed by civil society.

Instead, larger charitable foundations such as the Emirates Red Crescent - which has close ties to the government - tend to be the norm.

Now however, Ma’an has said it recognises the value in smaller nonprofits, and that it hopes to help breakdown existing legal and licencing barriers to help them flourish.

Ma’an’s Social Incubator Programme, which is featured prominently in The Exchange, focuses on the sustainability of nonprofits by providing guidance on best practice in business.

Marilena Di Costa of The Butterfly Foundation. Reem Mohammed / The National
Marilena Di Costa of The Butterfly Foundation. Reem Mohammed / The National

“What we have faced here locally is that the [social] businesses are more driven passionately towards the causes and forget that they can provide better services if they are strong from a business perspective,” said Ms Al Ameemi.

“You have to merge the cause with the business model in order to sustain your business and give quality service."

Amal Al Hajeri, a social entrepreneur, developed her nonprofit 'Accessible AD' with the aim of mapping areas of the city were those with disabilities could still get around unhindered.

By taking part in the Social Incubator Programme, she said she was able to learn how to make her initiative more appealing to businesses, ensuring their financial backing furthered her work.

Ma’an, the Authority of Social Contribution, has opened a new entrepreneurship hub called the The Exchange at Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi. Reem Mohammed / The National
Ma’an, the Authority of Social Contribution, has opened a new entrepreneurship hub called the The Exchange at Yas Mall, Abu Dhabi. Reem Mohammed / The National

She now provides consultancy services to restaurants and malls, guiding them on how making their establishments more accessible to the disabled can help generate increased profits.

Yet even with a more efficient, appealing business model, experts acknowledged it could still be challenging for nonprofits to change the public mindset about how a charity operates.

The Butterfly Foundation, another Social Incubator alumnus, said it was focused on changing the public's perception of those with disabilities.

It said it wanted to encourage people to move away from the idea that people of determination needed to be 'fixed' to one where society took greater responsibility in being more inclusive.

"We need to leave the old medical model of disability where the person of determination is the problem that needs to be fixed and need to switch to a social model of disability where it's society that needs to be equipped for inclusion," said Marilena Di Coste, the founder of the Butterfly Foundation.

This week, officials at Ma’an said The Exchange would show visitors the full range of what community engagement could look like and make social entrepreneurship more approachable.

The space at Yas Mall was donated by the property developer Aldar as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts and includes exhibits about the history of Ma’an.

Ms Di Coste explained that the story behind the name of the Butterfly Foundation was widely applicable to Ma’an’s ongoing efforts.

"When a butterfly flaps its wings, it can create a ripple effect that creates a typhoon somewhere else,” she said.

“While we don't want a typhoon, it's important to remember that small changes can generate bigger change."

Updated: February 13, 2020 06:03 PM

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