Ideas Beyond Borders
Ideas Beyond Borders champions positive, empowering ideas for Arab youth so they can elevate and transform the Middle East.
Raised in a closed society by an open-minded family, Faisal experienced two distinctly separate worlds. On the one hand, he discussed philosophers, literature, and democracy during summer evenings while barbecuing with his dad. On the other, he experienced Saddam Hussein’s and, later, Al-Qaeda’s oppressive rule. He lost his brother to terrorism and faced attempted kidnappings.
He witnessed his colleagues become radicalized and tried to convince them otherwise. He realized information in Arabic on subjects like critical thinking and pluralism was completely absent, creating fertile ground for misinformation and extremism.
He fled Iraq, becoming a U.S. refugee. Faisal became a social entrepreneur, speaking at dozens of conferences about his experience, youth engagement, and a positive vision for the future.
Now a US citizen, Faisal has vowed to help repair the Middle East by ushering in a new era of pluralism and freedom through his non-profit organization, Ideas Beyond Borders.
Ideas Beyond Borders
Ideas Beyond Borders champions positive, empowering ideas for Arab youth so they can elevate and transform the Middle East.
In the Middle East, information about living a modern, informed good life is almost entirely inaccessible. Consider this staggering fact: Only 3% of online content is available in Arabic (source: Google). As a result, youth face devastating gaps in knowledge, and are ill-equipped to create a new society.
Bayt al Hikma 2.0 (BAH2.0) solves this problem. It is a free digital solution, an easily accessible hub of knowledge, and a bustling community where youth explore and discuss significant ideas that are otherwise unavailable. BAH2.0 is the tech version of the great library of Baghdad, the original Bayt Al Hikma that served as a center for learning during the Middle East’s Golden Age.
BAH2.0 not only lays the groundwork for a vibrant future, it elevates the potential of every young person it touches, because as Steven Pinker has said, “knowledge builds on itself, and the exchange of ideas is exponentially transformative.”
In the Middle East, basic information about living a modern, informed good life is almost entirely inaccessible. Consider this staggering fact: As of 2015, only 3% of online content was available in Arabic, which is stunning since Arabic is the fourth most spoken language among internet users. As a result, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) youth face devastating gaps in knowledge, and are ill-equipped to create the modern society they desire and deserve.
Why? Authoritarian regimes, sectarianism, extremism, and censorship combine to create a crippling lack of access to empowering information about science, human rights, economics and more. Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that includes the right to access information and ideas without interference. Yet MENA countries rank among the worst in the world in this regard. Internet regulations, partisanship and religious bias all play a role. Most news sources are government-funded, with 24 out of 25 countries listed as actively participating in political or religious censorship.
The resulting content scarcity has created an existential vacuum in which alternative ideas about how to live are not available, thereby inhibiting the emergence of a modern Middle East.
IBB launched the Bayt Al Hikma 2.0 (or the House of Wisdom 2.0) with the express aim of creating the conditions for a revived Enlightenment in the Middle East. At its core, BAH2.0 is a free-to-access online hub of knowledge and a bustling community where youth can explore and discuss significant ideas and concepts that are otherwise largely inaccessible.
BAH2.0 is also a symbolically powerful and intentional naming. It is the tech version of the great library of Baghdad, the original Bayt Al Hikma that served as a center for innovation, enlightened ways, and scientific discovery during the Middle East’s Golden Age. The House of Wisdom was known for its translations and for the discourse that impacted and shaped the Arab world and beyond to this day.
By translating and sharing relevant topics and inspiring discussion, today’s BAH2.0 aims to rekindle the pursuit of knowledge and diversity of thought that will lay the groundwork for a fulfilling and vibrant civil society across the region. BAH2.0 is thus a culturally relevant, powerful and optimistic statement of the potential Middle Eastern youth have to seize and create their own future.
BAH2.0 is built to serve youth (aged 15-29), who make up more than two-thirds (150 million) of the MENA population. Given this, the 2016 UN Arab Development report called for significant investments in access to knowledge. With the access to which they are entitled (and are demanding), MENA youth will be empowered to pursue opportunities and contribute to a modern civil society.
IBB meets youth where they are with information they can’t easily obtain elsewhere and that fits their needs. We distribute our content for free, optimize for mobile, and create engaging content (more than 12.5 million have engaged with our COVID-19 content since March alone). IBB interacts on a daily basis with our translators, who provide input on our direction and content choice.
We also frequently engage with our more than 4.7 million followers, facilitating online conversations about their interests. IBB conducts surveys to determine needs, and tracks engagement to ensure community interest. In a recent survey of university translators, 94% indicate they are likely or very likely to use BAH2.0 as a resource, and 94% are likely or very likely to recommend the program to their peers.
Elevating issues and their projects by building awareness and driving action to solve the most difficult problems of our world
IBB’s goal is to provide MENA region youth with the opportunity to grapple directly with core Enlightenment ideals–such as freedom of thought and speech, human and civil rights, democracy, science and the use of reason–so that they can be better equipped to build a better Middle East. By providing access, IBB helps MENA youth clear the first hurdle: overcoming censorship to find knowledge that is otherwise hidden. By elevating the ideal of a Middle East Enlightenment, IBB enables youth to advocate for positive change in ways that are personally and culturally relevant–both absolutely essential in the incredibly challenging MENA environment.
Things got rolling one evening after a talk I gave in Los Angeles in 2016. Afterwards I met with Melissa Chen (Managing Director, also went to MIT) and we talked about the need for big change. I realized it was time to stop being a commentator, and to start leading. I would create a digital organization to help people in the Middle East do things for themselves, rather than wait for a savior.
We brainstormed late into the evening over many cups of coffee. We called it Ideas Beyond Borders, and created a mission statement. We would “promote the free exchange of ideas and defend human rights through education and technology to counter extremist narratives and authoritarian institutions.”
The next day I spoke with a former donor and friend in LA. He said he strongly supported the vision, but wanted to donate to an organization. Melissa and I flew to New York to meet with Sam Hershey, an attorney, and we got incorporated. I called my wealthy friend back, told him we had an organization, and he wrote the check. He ultimately became an angel investor, and was instrumental in getting IBB to where it is today.
Having experienced firsthand the “war on terror,” I have seen the damage that war brings. While the region’s problems are amazingly complicated, there is no doubt a lack of exposure to diverse ideas and the scarcity of content on subjects such as critical thinking and pluralism creates fertile ground for violent extremism and war.
If the world took 1% of what it spends on war and bombs to combat extremism, and instead spent it on education about pluralism and critical thinking, the Middle East would be in better shape.
The truth is, there are millions of Arabs committed to modernity and all the things the Middle East could be. They don’t want violence, sectarianism, and dictators. I know they want what I want, too.
It’s tough because the authoritarians are not going to let go easily. This is why IBB is both a refuge and an incubator for young people. We are a safe online community where they can learn and take action. Our job is to create the playing field for them. In a way, IBB is a field of dreams, dreams that will be made real when people gain the knowledge to build the world they wish for.
My work as a counter extremism practitioner includes time as a manager at Movements.org (initiated by Google Ideas, now Jigsaw). I still regularly share insights at Jigsaw, and continue with many speaking engagements, including the Aspen Ideas Festival. My conceptual framework for IBB–an organization that helps prevent extremism by promoting a positive, pluralistic Middle East–emerged directly from my immersion in the discipline.
I utilized my more than a decade of experience building online youth movements (including Global Conversations at 300,000+) to build IBB’s combined following of more than 4.7 million.
I have also built a network of leading professionals, academics, activists, and social influencers across the MENA region and in the West, many of whom I now call upon to share insights with our followers, or help develop new initiatives. I parlayed my network and experience as a translator (I’ve been one since my teens) to build IBB’s translation core competency. We now have more than 60 translators, most of whom have advanced degrees in medical, science or engineering.
We also built core competencies in communications and digital advertising for in-region youth, including NYC-based staff that have significant in-region work experience. As a result, we are highly capable of creating and repackaging digital content to hyper-target MENA youth, including relevant and ‘memeable’ videos, graphics, and social media posts to communicate contentious or difficult-to-understand material.
In short, if I don’t personally have the knowledge, I know how to find talent and build collaborations to get the job done.
Amidst the existential crisis of COVID-19, I had troubling issues to confront. How are we relevant? Could we responsibly continue?
I knew a pivot was needed, though funders might resist. The reasons were crystal clear. Providing COVID facts and combating disinformation was crucial because the big regional actors were doing exactly the opposite. Plus, acting on COVID would be the finest realization of IBB’s mission, because we promote science, facts and reason so that Arab youth can build a better future.
We acted swiftly, before funding was in place. On March 16th we launched Stop the Spread, a campaign to combat COVID-19 conspiracy theories and provide accurate health information to our 4.7 million followers.
Our donors responded positively, contributing more than a half million dollars. More importantly, we succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. We have engaged more than 12.5 million people and will soon top 20 million, while our website and social media usage has more than doubled. Our readers responded positively, even in the midst of a pandemic.
We have learned much and have new, better ways to do things. It’s hard to believe, but we’re now better equipped to scale and deliver on our mission than ever.
In 2015, I received the President’s Volunteer Service Award (gold) from President Obama in recognition of my commitment to education, and for galvanizing awareness on the need for honest, thoughtful conversations about the root causes of extremism in the Middle East.
Today, I champion a positive future for Arab youth, and continue to utilize my personal story to confirm that I understand their challenges and truly support them. This is now no longer about me (it never was); it’s a movement with many emerging leaders who constantly inspire me to reach higher.
As Abdullah, one of our translators, said: “The feeling I have every night when I go to bed that I made a difference today is priceless. Articles about civil rights, women rights, and enlightenment principles really changed my mind. BAH2.0 is important for society and for me; for society because it displays ideas and thoughts really needed in this region, and for me to feel like I’m making a difference.”
Our 60 translators are now role models as well, and together we’re poised to change the lives of the more than 4.7 million people who follow IBB.
We are in our third year (April 2017).
IBB is uniquely positioned as the sole current international NGO in this space, with distinct advantages as a disrupter of the MENA region status quo:
IBB’s logical framework is steadily evolving as we gather baseline data in 2020. IBB’s BAH2.0, the digital House of Wisdom, is dedicated to ensuring ideas about civil and human rights, science and other topics are available to Arab youth, and that ultimately, they will avail themselves of these values and resources to create a modern Middle East.
Our current framework’s objective is to “Increase the amount and readership of Arabic internet content supporting critical thinking by MENA region young adults.”
Our output indicators call for increasing numbers of article views (1 million+ in 2020) and book and video downloads (50,000+ each), as well as a steadily increasing number of followers (1.2 million+ directly owned in 2020, which we have already exceeded at nearly 1.5 million). We also track increases in available content, which is actually of significant importance since these ideas are otherwise almost entirely unavailable to Arab youth (documented above).
Our outcome measures are currently based on survey-based self-reported reader change in knowledge and satisfaction with our content (discussed above). As Dr. Pinker has said, knowledge builds on itself, and our content program creates potential for self-education that would otherwise be absent, especially since censorship in the Middle East is so incredibly stifling that most people simply have no information at all about subjects that are basic to the functioning of a modern society. At the same time, we have directional evidence that our users consider our content to be of significant importance. As indicated previously, 94% of IBB’s university translators indicate they are likely or very likely to use BAH2.0 as a resource, and 94% are likely or very likely to recommend the program to their peers.
IBB originally projected our followers would access our content at least 2 million times this year, more than 5 million times in 2021 and more than 15 million times by 2024. However, we’ve blown past that with our COVID-19 coverage, with 14.2 million engagements since March. To be frank, it is completely thrilling and it bodes well for our success, but we are also in new territory, and we have work to do in assessing how we both sustain this growth and continue it. We should also note that we are increasingly focused on increasing in-depth engagement. Since March more than 750,000 have viewed our COVID-19 short form video content for one minute or more. We anticipate this number will increase for all video content to more than 1 million next year, and more than 2.3 million in five years, with upward adjustments possible if we conclude that our current level of engagement is sustainable. Finally, our 50 freelance translators and our 40 Iraq university translators are also beneficiaries, even as they provide translated content to our readers. We empower our translators by providing professional skills development and stipends for their work.
IBB’s goal is to become the leading source of information for young Arab adults who want to explore and engage with content about democracy, human rights, science, and pluralism. By 2024, having built the digital content engine, marketing program, and distribution network and scaled its user base beyond the 15 million mark, IBB will be by far the largest MENA-region-focused nonprofit multimedia publisher of Enlightenment content. We will be ideally positioned to serve the MENA region’s 150 million youth, and to create systemic impact.
IBB will further stand out as a private nonprofit built by and for Arabic-speaking young adults, as opposed to those funded by Middle Eastern governments or the West, and will be positioned to expand into the Kurdish- and Farsi-speaking markets.
As IBB reaches this stage, it will be in a position to produce more original content and create new distribution partnerships with publishers and media companies from within and without the MENA region. It will also be poised to deepen engagement with its core constituency of young people, and to invest in programs that will encourage a life of leadership and commitment to the positive ethos of Bayt al Hikma 2.0. E.g., we will become an education partner to our readers, and deepen their experience and leadership potential by providing free digital courses covering critical thinking, human and civil rights, leadership development and more, ideally in partnership with Khan Academy or a similar nonprofit.
As with almost any startup, IBB has made progress unevenly. To date, much effort and resources have been invested in developing the core BAH2.0 digital content platform and our social media following—in essence, our “minimum viable product.” We have built the “machine” that allows us to readily increase the number of books and articles we are translating, and we are close to being able to do the same with videos and podcasts. We have also built a strong and large following. We are already generating significant use of our content through our distribution and marketing program, which is also scalable.
That said, IBB’s primary constraint is what almost every nonprofit startup faces: generating sufficient growth in relationships that will enable sustainable revenue. While investing in revenue growth is a given, IBB is also considering what a scaled operation might look like, especially as it is developing its multi-year fundraising case for use in conversations with major individual donors and foundations.
IBB benefited enormously from a California-based anonymous angel investor who believes in the IBB mission and committed more than $3 million to program development, resulting in the scalable BAH2.0 model described here. However, our investor has encountered difficulties and has had to withdraw from a $500,000 pledge. Shortly thereafter, IBB received an unexpected $500,000 gift from another donor. IBB has nevertheless prudently reduced its burn rate and has reserves on hand to continue operations through 2021 based on the reduced budget and relatively modest revenue projections.
In 2019, IBB began investing significant resources in fundraising. IBB is transforming its board from a “working” to a “fundraising” model. We are recruiting new members with significant fundraising experience, personal wealth, and a willingness to use their access on IBB’s behalf. We anticipate the “star power” of our new board member Dr. Steven Pinker will help recruit individuals with this profile. The nominating committee has two viable candidates in the pipeline and are qualifying and cultivating another three to five, with the goal of increasing the board’s give/get total by at least $100,000 to $200,000.
In keeping with the development plan, the Executive Director and Development Director are developing board, foundation, and major donor relationships. The main effort is devoted to cultivating individuals with capacity to give mid-five to mid-six-figure gifts, and to recruiting board members with a willingness to deploy their wealth and access on IBB’s behalf. A secondary effort is devoted to the Friends of Ideas Beyond Borders, a new mid-level giving society (1k to 10k) oriented toward young professionals and major donor prospects making a smaller first-time gift. Having reached the three year mark, IBB is in a position to begin serious conversations with program officers at relevant foundations. IBB received its first foundation gift in February (a $25,000 grant from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom). We have submitted eight proposals (including the Wikimedia Foundation) valued at 500k+ (not including this entry), and are qualifying another eight for submission this year.
IBB is currently formally collaborating with more than 20 organizations, and dozens more on a less formal basis. Key partners include Wikipedia of the Levant and Wikipedia Kurdistan. These relationships have resulted in more than 20,000 Wikipedia articles translated by IBB to date. MENA region based social media partnerships with I Believe in Science, Egyptian Researchers and others have significantly expanded IBB’s reach by more than 3 million followers. IBB also partners with Middle East Broadcast Network (MBN) on content development. IBB’s Iraq university program partners include University of Mosul, University of Tikrit, University of Duhok, University of Wasit, and Leaders for Change Iraq. IBB also has a number of important publishing, translation and production partners, including Masterword, Fuse School, Asafeer, Hindawi, Parallel Networks, and others. E.g., our partnership with Masterword, an internationally regarded translation company, resulted in the high quality translation of 15 books, including Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. IBB also partners with the Information Safety and Capacity Project (ISC) in providing digital security training for our translators. We have also partnered with Jigsaw (Google) to obtain Project Shield, which provides security against DDOS attacks. IBB is committed to ongoing collaboration with organizations in our space, and regularly engages in conversation to both better understand successes and failures in program design and delivery, and to identify additional opportunities for collaboration.
As discussed earlier, IBB revenue is derived primarily through philanthropic contributions. Our strategy is based on building a philanthropically inclined board, and diversifying our revenue away from a few large donors to include major, mid-level and grassroots individuals and foundation contributors. To accomplish this, IBB hired a development director in September 2019 and repositioned the board and the Executive Director’s time to invest in relationship development.
IBB staff and board are assessing additional sources of revenue, including corporate (sponsorships and grants) and earned revenue (from translation work performed for other NGOs or private companies). The latter requires business planning time and resources, but given that IBB is currently employing 40 freelance translators, it is undoubtedly worth assessing.
We view corporate revenue as feasible, but before proceeding, we plan to carefully evaluate the brand risks of associating IBB with either Western or MENA region companies. Whereas Western companies are often viewed with suspicion, interests associated with authoritarian governments often control regional companies. Either may negatively affect the perception of our BAH 2.0 program among our users and followers or unnecessarily expose IBB to delegitimization campaigns by extremists and authoritarian governments. The same is true of government revenue, which we are also exploring in discussions with the US State Department and others.
Total revenues in 2019 were $1.602 million, of which 96% were from individual contributions, with the remainder originating from companies. In 2020, total revenue to date is $622,206, of which 97% is from individuals, and 3% from foundations.
We anticipate the need to raise at least $7 million in philanthropic revenue by 2024. This requires 75% revenue growth each year from a projected $570,000 in 2021 to $3 million in 2024.
Our estimated expenses for 2020 are $1.4 million, including an an investment of $1.2 million in our programs, which is funded by existing funds and new philanthropic contributions. The balance is committed to fundraising and administration.
As we identified, our primary barrier is financial. We believe the resources the Elevate Prize can bring to bear in assisting us develop sustainable revenue would be invaluable, with particular regard to developing earned revenue sources, in developing our board and our fundraising capacity. We believe that Elevate’s marketing skill set would be of enormous assistance in this regard, especially in the US.
Moreover, although it is not a barrier for us, IBB would benefit very much from Elevate’s counsel in further iterating our programs. As stated earlier, our goal is to deepen engagement with our readers so that they are better equipped to engage and transform their communities. To do this requires more investment, of course. But mostly, it requires big thinking, door opening and relationship development, which we hope Elevate can assist us with. E.g., assistance in building a collaboration with the likes of the Khan Academy to deliver not just a course or two but a significant initiative to translate their courses into Arabic.
Finally, although we did not stress it elsewhere, we recognize that we are a startup and can benefit from startup-specific management and leadership advice (mentoring/coaching) as we move on our path from startup to growth.
1. IBB is developing partnerships with international and regional civil society partners active in the MENA region in order to expand programmatic impact. Desired activities include sub-grant partnerships, sharing best practice interventions, and collaborating on M&E. Current conversations include the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), which builds civil society capacity in the region.
2. IBB seeks new regional social influencer partnerships, for the purpose of expanding IBB’s following and sharing our content more widely.
3. IBB wishes to develop new translation partnerships with MENA region universities, building on our success in Iraq.
4. IBB is eager to build current dialogues with Facebook and Google, not just for funding but to collaborate on anti-conspiracy projects and in promoting fact-oriented sources in the MENA region.
The Khan Academy, to translate and promote their courses. Most of their content is not available in Arabic, so there is a major opportunity here.
MIT Press, to translate and publish video summaries of the Essential Knowledge Series, and to share translations of books where possible.
MIT Media Lab, to obtain rights to access data from the Global Language Network project regarding Arabic language internet distribution trends, and thereby make directional decisions regarding the focus of future translation projects.
Commercial publishers, e.g., Simon & Schuster, et al, to translate books into Arabic.
The New York Times, Scientific American, and other publishers of science content. Partnerships would resolve rights issues quickly, and permit IBB to translate, publish and distribute their content.