Profiles: Sara Abbasi

Sara Abbasi

Sara Abbasi

MA International Affairs 96

Board Member at Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, World Affairs Council of Northern California.


In rural Pakistan, only 57% of the children enroll in primary school and fewer than half complete fifth grade. The literacy rate among girls and women is only 40%, one of the lowest in the world. Sara Abbasi was born in Pakistan and grew up as a child of the world. Thanks to her father's career, home was once Islamabad, Brussels, and even Manila. She was the educated daughter of a civil servant and diplomat for Pakistan.

In 2009 Pakistan's National Education Policy set a goal to increase the literacy rate to 85% by the end of 2015. Developments in Literacy (DIL) is one of about 36 non-government organizations involved in bringing education to rural Pakistan. DIL educates more than 17,000 students (68% girls) at 179 schools, which are located in Pakistan's most remote and impoverished regions. The organization also employs more than 800 teachers, nearly all of whom are women.

DIL began in 1997 to address the problems of poor access to quality education in Pakistan's underdeveloped areas. Abbasi learned about the organization in 2000. Abbasi and her husband, Sohaib, were looking for viable ways to provide support to educational efforts in Pakistan. As it happened, Abbasi attended a brown-bag luncheon lecture on the DIL project at the Asia Foundation in San Francisco. The next weekend, Abbasi ran into the founder of DIL, Fiza Shah at an event in Los Angeles. She was asked to start a chapter in the Bay Area. Through the rough year of 2001, around the 9/11 tragedy, the chapter was started in San Francisco. The first fundraising event hosted 150 people and raised $70,000. From that point, the chapter kept growing. It is now 12 years old and thriving. Abbasi credits some of that success to her graduate work in the GGU International Affairs MS degree program, where she focused on women's issues in developing countries.

A friend introduced her to the Global Fund for Women in the mid-90s. At the time, it was a tiny emerging nonprofit with only a handful of staff. The organization had been founded in Palo Alto by three women who believed women's human rights and dignity were essential for the advancement of global agendas for social, economic and political change. The nonprofit directly funds women-led organizations. Abbasi joined the group as a volunteer and began to learn the ropes of running NGOs and nonprofits. At first, she went in once or twice a week to evaluate summaries of the funding requests. When her youngest son was born, she took time off from the project, but continued supporting small education projects that her mother was developing in Pakistan.

Her mother was married at 16 and had just finished 10th grade. Her father encouraged her mother to study independently to receive a high school diploma and later, bachelors and master's degrees. While living in Manila, Abbasi's mother enrolled at the university there in the doctoral program. Abbasi recalls doing homework in her room, while her mother was in her study doing the same. Abbasi's parents had already retired and returned to Pakistan when her father died. Shortly after, Abbasi's mother ended up in the northern regions of the country working with one of the premier development organizations.

The work being done on the ground to help Pakistan's women and girls resonated deeply with Abbasi. And it is to those women and girls in the countryside whom she devotes most of her attention. Abbasi joined the DIL board not long after she became acquainted with the organization and has served since. She is now the chair of the organization's international board. The myriad of fundraising events and projects she's promoted and championed over the years have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The communities she speaks of, though, are not all in rural Pakistan. Abbasi believes working to promote DIL also has made a difference in the lives of young Pakistani Americans living in the United States.

As a philanthropist, Abbasi is committed to spreading access to education worldwide. In addition to serving as chair of the DIL board of directors, Abbasi serves on the board of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, and the board of trustees of Menlo School, an independent college-preparatory day school. Abbasi has also served on the board of the American Pakistan Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding education, healthcare, micro-infrastructure and entrepreneurship opportunities to the underprivileged people of her native country. She is a past board member of One Nation, a national philanthropic initiative that promotes pluralism and inclusion in America. These experiences have given her valuable insights as to the importance of board membership.