A new era for Muslim philanthropy?


Zibran Choudhury


Muslim Philanthropy is vast, and it was inevitably going to be difficult to dissect such a rich topic over a three-day event. However, this year’s Global Donors Forum was a wholehearted attempt. Insights were crammed into back to back plenaries, dialogues, award ceremonies and networking events was sure to leave a lasting impression on practitioners within Muslim philanthropy.

This year’s forum was called Building Resilient Ecosystems, and the word ‘resilience’ can often be associated with harsh experiences. Such as ‘disaster resilience’ to cope with the impacts of climate change, or ‘psychological resilience’ to successfully cope with a crisis. However, you sensed a more positive starting point at this forum.

It was the first Forum to be held in London since the first gathering in 2008, and it was exciting to see such a diverse and global audience. Over 300 delegates from organisations around the world were in attendance and they were exposed to both local and international perspectives. From ‘Lessons for Funders from the Grenfell Tower Disaster’ to ‘Building a Knowledge Ecosystem in the Middle East.’

The history and scale of giving in Muslim philanthropy was made evident early on and throughout. ‘British Muslim society has been reported to have given twice as much as other faiths in the UK,’ said Samantha May during a session on The Evolving State of Muslim Giving in the United Kingdom.’The giving is also diverse. It ranges from large national charities to local community-led charities.’

At the opening plenary Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, Chairman of Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation, echoed these statements, ‘The Muslim world is very generous, but the power of giving is in the hands of its 1.6 billion followers.’

However, Al Ghurair was equally quick to point out the challenges, and rest of the event followed this formula. ‘We have much to be proud of, but it’s not at its best. We have a history of giving, but it has not progressed. In the new era of Muslim giving, I hope we prioritise lifting people up from poverty and conflict.’

But where to start? What would ignite this new era of better giving? It was clear that it wouldn’t any one moment, and perhaps it started with looking out rather than within the Muslim Philanthropy community.

Tariq Cheema, co-founder of the event and guest editor of the latest issue of Alliance magazine led this call: ‘We are partners for the collective good. This is the time of Muslim giving to learn from other traditions, they’ve done it better, been more sophisticated.’

Dilnaz Waraich, Director at Pillars Fund echoed this during the plenary on How Philanthropy is Building Civic Resilience among the Muslim Americans? ‘We need to make sure we’re connecting. We were very comfortable in our silos before trump. Our institutions are doing great work, but they are insular. We have to keep connecting with interfaith organisations.’

However, breaking out from these silos and looking outwards didn’t just include other faiths, but outside philanthropy altogether.

During Dr. Tobias Jung’s A Critical View of Impact Evaluation he called on Muslim Charities to raise their standards: ‘Muslim charities must be more professionalized and specialised. Donors don’t see their impact of their donations. We must have the same standards for our charities that we do for our businesses. Earn their respect as an expert.’

‘Billions are wasted on ineffective philanthropy. Philanthropy is decades behind business in applying rigorous thinking to the use of money.’

Kashif Shabir, from the Euro Charity Trust was more blunt with his view: ‘I’m tired of us not taking lessons from the for-profit sector.’

During a lively debate on whether philanthropy can prevent extremism, chaired by Alliance magazine editor, Charles Keidan, Zahed Amanullah from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) also spoke of casting the net high and wide.

‘The hesitation is understandable it is about building confidence, It’s about what matters? What is hype and what is the truth? It’s results that matter.’

‘It’s great to take risks, and we want people to take risks. We do what we can to save religion, but we’re not saying it’s the answer. We’re saying we need religion that is more educated, more refined, more nuanced.’

‘Philanthropy needs to broaden the net, judge people what they can deliver on combatting hate, not on political discourse.’

So what’s the plan?

Alex Skailes, from Centre for Charity Effectiveness, Cass Business School championed the need for collaboration, and it was a view shared by many.

‘Collaborative working is so important. Sharing successes but also what doesn’t work. Too often investment in research and not disseminated. How can we push that out to people who want to learn and develop?’

Despite the lack of young voices at the event, there was also a cry for investing in and protecting young people. John Bramwell, Acting Director of Education, British Council explained: ‘Young Muslims are more educated than previous generations. Women are closing the gap, higher education exceeds men in many regions around the world’

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, VP Islamic Marketing at Ogilvy, said young Muslims can help the practice due to the overwhelmingly young dynamic of the global Muslim population. ‘There is a changing identity of young Muslims. Young Muslims are constantly challenging stereotypes.’

‘They see charity as self-expression and it’s growing. We need to ask what their understanding of charity is and what their needs are too. Most young Muslims have lived in the post 9/11 era. The modern world can help the Muslim practice.’

What about a new approach altogether? Harris Irfan, of European Islamic Investment Bank, rallied for a shift towards social impact investing. ‘We currently address the symptoms and not the causes.

‘We have to think more systematically and confrontationally, It’s not necessarily the case that philanthropy understands social needs.’

‘It’s an exciting time with the rise of technology, and the emergence of millennials addressing social issues. We need to harness these people. Look at how and where they work, and how they spend their money.’

During a moving discussion on social cohesion, Lord Michael Hastings shared the famous Mark Twain quote: ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’

It was apt. Muslim philanthropy was born, is very much alive and trying very hard to find out why.

Zibran Choudhury is Communication and Circulation Officer at Alliance magazine.

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