In April 2003, Samina Rizwan, currently the Senior Director of Industry Strategy and Insight at Oracle Corporation Middle East and Africa, launched Rizwan Scholars to support higher education in Pakistan. Rizwan Scholars (commonly referred to as RizScholars) is a not-for-profit philanthropic organization that offers scholarships to “academically exceptional but economically challenged young Pakistanis regardless of gender, religion or ethnicity”. Internationally recognized organizations such as Give2Asia, Pakistan Center for Philanthropy and Standard Chartered Bank have included RizScholars as one of their select sustainable initiatives. The trust has been continuously rated highly in the areas of financial management, governance and systems management, and serves as a great case study of the importance of effective management in philanthropic organizations.

How did it start?

Samina’s family has been supporting deserving individuals’ education efforts for a number of years but it was not an institutionalized effort. “Anyone aware of Pakistan’s plight, especially in the area of education should need minimum external pressure to undertake an education related venture. Every Pakistani should address our educational plight on a war footing!” says Samina. Following the death of her husband, Air Cdre Rizwan, the family decided to launch a trust to solidify their pre-existing efforts in the field of education.

How does it work?

“Riz Scholars provides scholarships in the form of quarterly stipends (between Rs. 1500 to Rs. 2500 per month) to deserving Pakistanis for their higher education needs. We aim to take the service to the Scholar as opposed to taking the Scholar to the service” explains Samina while speaking to TC-P. By this she means, that the trust is not focused on the construction of schools and colleges but rather on providing opportunity to students who are hampered by economic limitation to pursue higher education.

While ventures such as Zindagi Trust (another great initiative!) specifically target Pakistan’s most needy class, those whose economic situation barely allows them to get into a school, RizScholars caters to middle and lower middle strata of society. “We feel immediate action…is absolutely necessary for a class of society that has a chance at higher education, has the greatest talent pool of the country, but is hampered by financial constraints” says Samina.

At any given time, RizScholars has 150 to 180 students on their roster. Currently, the number stands at 186.   The annual plan for scholarship depends upon the funds available. In order to fulfill the organization’s commitment to the scholars, the management has to ensure that money will be available for existing scholars to complete their program even if they are no additional funds coming in. Once they have completed the assessment and there are funds left over, the team proceeds to shortlist from applications and conduct interviews. Currently, the organization can take up to 40 more scholars. Interviews will begin in April 2011 for the upcoming fall semester.

The organization’s commitment to the student however, does not end with awarding the scholarship to the student. RizScholars has a fairly stringent system for monitoring the progress of students. The organization’s officers demand grade sheets before they make the next stipend payment, and are in touch with the faculty regarding the academic progress of the student. The trust also sends out admin offers to the universities and colleges across the countries for site visits. Samina emphasizes, “It is important for a recipient of scholarship to not feel belittled, not consider the money a handout. It is important for a RizScholar to know that he/she has earned the stipend through qualification and effort”.

“The model of operation and governance that we have created is scaleable and sustainable. It has been tested over the years and has been audited for errors and omissions, risks and irregularities…The only thing standing in the way of its growth in terms of scholar numbers is funding.  If we could get ensured funding from a credible, audited source, we could scale the model to 5 times its current size” says Samina.

Currently, Rizwan Scholars’ funding structure is relatively simple. The trust doesn’t aggressively solicit funds in the market domestically or internationally through donor agencies. The efforts are centered on two sections of society: communities closely connected to the trust, and corporate bodies. Their fundraising efforts are focused on developing personal and detailed relationships with donors, and developing a plan whereby the organization receives a modest but regular amount of financial support. In return, “we provide complete access to our audited accounts and reports of our scholars…It has never happened that a regular donor has opted out of our program” says Samina. Furthermore, the family runs the initiative at no charge. That said, Samina acknowledges that fundraising has remained one of RizScholars’ greatest challenge.

One of the reasons I thought it will be interesting to feature RizScholars on the blog was in part because of Samina’s own corporate background. She acknowledges her experience in the corporate sector has helped her greatly:

Business experience and corporate knowledge grooms and refines an individual to plan well, communicate effectively and assess the risk related to projects.  This, in turn, brings sustainability to initiatives. In addition, the credibility one establishes over several years of engagement in the corporate sector is the foundation upon which philanthropic, not for profit ventures must be built.  Finally, it is important to account for and measure not just inputs such as plans, finances and human resources but outputs such as the improvement in educational outcomes that are achieved as a result of the initiative.  All of this is classic business management and it applies in not for profit ventures as well.

Making an Impact

The trust was launched in part to address questions that inevitably arise after a great loss: why does a person arrive in this world for? What is our purpose? “We do not know if we are answering these questions with regard to Rizwan’s presence in this world or ours (his family), but in a small way we are trying to make our lives meaningful and valuable. RizScholars brings more benefit to us, in the form of self-satisfaction and actualization, than it does to the scholars that we support, so we remain grateful to our scholars for giving us this opportunity.”

That said, the trust is definitely on its way towards changing the lives of young Pakistanis who otherwise would not have the opportunity to pursue a higher education. Thanks to RizScholars, one girl from a pardah observing community in Hunza was recently admitted into the Mechatronix program at University of Engineering and Technology and Lahore: “This is a program which is tough to get into, men often do not qualify”.

RizScholars also helped many young students complete their degree following the 2005 earthquake: “Several young men and women lost their homes and family to the earthquake. They lived out their current terms at hostels with no money, sold their watches and phones, took loans and finally found us.  We have helped at least 35 to 40 earthquake impacted Scholars through their professional degree programs.  Many had lost their entire families”.

Samina however, is quick to point out that their work does not allow emotional attachment to any scholar, either during the assessment or through their time with them. “For us, a scholar who touches our heart is welcome and appreciated, but someone who has brilliant high school grades but may not be “socially and emotionally uplifting” is the best scholarship candidate” explains Samina. “So, we do not look for emotionally resonating stories…Rather, we look for young Pakistanis who give us maximum confidence that they will achieve their academic objectives and improve their lot not just in this generation but for generations to come”.

If you’re interested in supporting the trust, you can donate to RizScholars here. Know of similar great initiatives in the area of education? Please let us know in your comments!

Rizwan Scholars from Rizwan Scholars on Vimeo.