As a newcomer to the world of Muslim philanthropy, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Global Donors Forum, held last week in London. I admit that I may have some insider knowledge on being a Muslim and in my professional life, I manage a community foundation but rarely do the two worlds intertwine. It was therefore interesting to be invited to talk about my research in addressing inequality through foundations, at the Forum conference.
The programme itself could not be faulted – a wide range of interesting speakers and topics, the majority of which were relevant to all practitioners of philanthropy. Discussions ranged from the structural to the personal, Mohammed Amersi from the Amersi foundation set the tone with a thought-provoking narrative on inclusive capitalism which was given colour through the individual experiences of Farid Zenai, in an impassioned evening address. His journey as an Afghani refugee in Saudi Arabia to the President of the Centre for Global Policy, demonstrated the power of philanthropy but also the uniqueness of Muslim philanthropy, whereby concealing the gift of donation has been the norm.
It is only recently that the nature and extent of Muslim philanthropy has been explored and understood but what remains unclear is its future form. A number of challenges exist in taking a means of private, faith-based, individual giving and shaping it into public, collaborative philanthropy. The infrastructure to support this transition is still haphazard and evolving and Muslim philanthropy manifests in different ways, depending on the country involved. I also question whether philanthropists and foundations from Muslim majority countries, should be pursuing models of western philanthropy which may be inappropriate, out of context. Although, the National Zakat Foundation based in the UK, is one example of using compulsory faith-based giving and shaping it into a form which is reflective of the circumstances of the Muslim population in the UK.
In addition, the emergence of Muslim foundations in the UK such as the Aziz foundation is an interesting development, providing a structure to highlight philanthropy by the Muslim community as well as research and support issues of specific concern to them. Could this be because there has been a perceived failure by the majority of mainstream foundations to address issues such as Islamophobia and the disadvantage within certain Muslim communities? Or should the development of foundations like this, be applauded for being able to advocate and highlight their areas of concern, more effectively?
The conference also focussed on other challenges common to all philanthropy – how do we make our giving and impact more structural and strategic? How do we work with media organisations? How do we create and retain talent? These are matters which unite all foundations and ultimately the conference was important in demonstrating the interconnectedness of our work, whether local or global. This was most evident by the multiple connections being made and conversations being had, outside the programme. From the US to Hong Kong via Qatar and Pakistan, the chance to deliberate commonality and difference was the highlight of the event for me, providing an alternative view of philanthropy in a familiar setting.
Fozia Irfan is CEO Bedfordshire and Luton Community Foundation