After Asmara Enright attended a programme created by Columbia Business School in New York for Saudi non-profit organisations, she realised that most of the participants in the sector, including herself, had no business processes in place.

“When we started 15 years ago, there weren’t any [management] guidelines,” she says, referring to the Epilepsy Support and Information Centre in Saudi Arabia, which she manages. “We just started it and played [the rest] by ear.”

Bringing together non-profits such as Ms Enright’s and others that focus on education and women’s rights is another, larger non-profit organisation, the King Khalid Foundation. Participants are chosen by the foundation and come from more than 30 Saudi non-profits to learn management education from Columbia University professors as part of the custom offering. The King Khalid Foundation, established by royal decree in 2001, acts as an agency to develop non-profit projects in Saudi Arabia.

“The sector is very under-developed,” says Natasha Matic, the foundation’s senior strategy and programme adviser, who worked with Columbia to develop the programme.

The foundation subsequently sent 33 Saudi non-profit leaders on the custom programme and participants attended two week-long sessions in Riyadh in 2009 and 2010. A class of 30 participants starts in June.

Ms Matic says it was challenging to find a programme that addressed the foundation’s specific mission to build capacity in the non-profit sector. Saudi non-profits have no trouble getting initial funding for philanthropic ventures but are not as strategically developed to succeed in the long term as those of other Middle East countries, she says. Designing a programme from scratch was the only way to get everyone on a level playing field, adds Ms Matic.

“They needed a lot of the basic training and skills that would help them run the organisations,” she says.

When Columbia began developing its Executive Education Programme for Non-profit Organisations in Saudi Arabia, it leant heavily on the foundation’s extensive research of Saudi Arabia’s non-profit sector to develop a curriculum. Columbia also relied on lessons from its open enrolment social enterprise programmes on campus. The programme’s cases were tweaked to include Arabic names, says Raymond Horton, Columbia’s director of programmes in social enterprise who taught on the course along with three other professors.

“The sessions are very practical – we are not teaching them theory, we are teaching them tools,” he says. Participants do anything from practising negotiation techniques and leadership development to learning about decision mapping and managing conflict. At the end of the programme, participants present three strategic growth plans to the foundation that they intend to implement.

Since attending the course, Ms Enright has started using a standardised system to evaluate which programmes the epilepsy centre will participate in and the non-profit is now far more selective with its use of time.

Another participant, Nizar Al-Oufi, an executive at an information technology centre, learnt how to manage conflict at work by using a mapping technique to understand the entire picture.

For Columbia’s professors, this executive education programme is a dream come true. It was the first time the school had been asked to deliver specifically a programme for a non-profit outside the US, says Prof Horton. Previously, international non-profit managers attended Columbia to participate in leadership programmes alongside international non-profits such as the Red Cross or the Gates Foundation. The Saudi programme has had more impact, according to Prof Horton.

Interest in the sector is growing. Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and Duke University Fuqua School of Business also have executive education offerings geared at international non-profits, with some participants from the Middle East. The Thunderbird School of Global Management offers business training in the region. Thunderbird works with Afghan women as part of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women initiative to help teach business skills to underserved women worldwide.

But teaching a customised programme in Riyadh is not without some cultural stumbling blocks. Prof Horton says many of the men were surprised to be studying alongside women. But, as the course went on, projects and networking brought the group closer together. “By the end, we had them doing a mock negotiating session,” he says.

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