By Emily Haynes
Charitable giving is a fixture at prayers and community meals during Ramadan, but this year, Islamic nonprofits had to innovate quickly to reach donors as they sheltered in place throughout the holy month. Many Islamic charities rely on donations that come in during Ramadan to fund their work for the year.
As some experts predict giving may soon start a steep decline, fundraisers felt this year’s Ramadan giving season was even more precious.
Ramadan, which stretched from April 23 to May 23, is typically when many practicing Muslims give zakat, which is similar to a tithe but equal to 2.5 percent of an individual’s wealth. The donations usually support charities that alleviate poverty, advance human rights, or otherwise promote social justice.
In the past, charities collected zakat at community and mosque events throughout the holy month. This year, however, imams led prayers over social media while most mosques stayed closed. Instead of gathering to break the fast together, families shared evening meals over video chat.
“This really became a do-or-die situation,” said Mariya Nadeem, chief marketing officer at Helping Hand for Relief and Development, an international aid organization that relies heavily on zakat.
The charity — which reported more than $63 million in revenue for fiscal 2017, according to the most recent public tax filings — generally raises most of its fundraising revenue through banquets and speaking events during Ramadan.
“Our projections were completely different, pre-Covid,” Nadeem says. “Once Covid-19 happened, we realized that we were not going to be able to make the same impact that we had set out for ourselves. We had to come to terms with that.”
With just more than a month’s heads up, the group refocused its efforts on raising enough money to keep its existing staff and programs working worldwide.
The solution: an array of virtual events including prayer, Koran study, story time for children, and online fundraising drives.
“There is a lot of meeting up and socializing that happens during Ramadan that we really missed this time around,” Nadeem says. “We tried to give that back to our donors.”
While the final fundraising tallies are not yet available, Nadeem says the charity “did fine” this year. She does wonder, however, whether some of her group’s virtual efforts got lost in the flood of online events from mosques, scholars, and charities.
“It was really great to see everyone put so much content out there,” Nadeem says. “But at the end of the day, it started to become a lot. I started to see fatigue from donors.”
Help for Small Nonprofits
A recent survey of giving patterns during the pandemic found that donations to faith-based nonprofits were keeping pace with the pre-pandemic levels. An earlier version of the survey, released in April, found a slight uptick in the number of people who planned to give to faith-based nonprofits in the wake of Covid-19. Nearly half of respondents — 48 percent — said they planned to give, compared with 45 percent who said they made contributions to such faith-based nonprofits last year.
That’s better news than a marked decline in gifts to religious nonprofits, but it also punctures any hopes that a surplus of disaster giving is headed their way. Charities that were short on cash before the pandemic will need to keep tightening their belts.
Many of the estimated 10,000 nonprofits serving Muslim Americans have annual budgets of less than $250,000, says Muhi Khwaja, director of development and philanthropy at the American Muslim Community Foundation. Like other small nonprofits, many of these charities don’t have reliable records of their donors or fundraising staff to run a big campaign like an annual fund. Without rigorous fundraising practices, these charities don’t have much of a cushion in times of trouble.
“In a good year, maybe they had six to 10 months of reserves in their operation, but now they’re at one to three months,” Khwaja says “It was tough to see that.”
The foundation, which he co-founded in 2016, offers training to help Islamic charities across the country formalize their fundraising efforts by launching online campaigns, collecting donor data, and building lasting relationships with donors. It also awards grants to Islamic nonprofits and holds donor-advised funds.
As fear of a coming wave of nonprofit closures swirls in the nonprofit world, the American Muslim Community Foundation hoped to provide a lifeline for Islamic nonprofits that not only lost revenue because of widespread economic uncertainty but also had to cancel their biggest fundraising events of the year.
In April, the foundation opened the Covid-19 Response Fund for Nonprofits, an online crowdfunding campaign that raised $100,000 for 17 Islamic organizations and $250,000 for mosques. The grants ranged from $1,000 to $66,000.
While that money certainly helps, it may not be enough to keep the doors open at smaller faith-based nonprofits.
Fatima Sadaf Saied, executive director of the Muslim Women’s Organization in Orlando, Fla., has participated in American Muslim Community Foundation trainings and applied some of what she learned to her charity’s efforts to meet its fundraising goals this Ramadan.
The nonprofit’s budget for 2019 was just over $110,000. In September it took on a big new expense when it opened an office space to host book clubs, religious counseling, and other events. Like many Islamic charities, the Muslim Women’s Organization only uses zakat to fund its mission work, but Saied had been counting on donors to make additional unrestricted contributions during Ramadan to cover its increased operating expenses.
Saied, the only paid staff member, convened volunteers virtually to make a new plan for Ramadan.
“We decided that women are overwhelmed right now with a lot of content. There’s some great content out there, and we don’t need to be adding to it right now,” Saied says. “That’s a lot of effort to put into something that people may just not need.”
Instead, the group asked itself: “What can we do that is necessary?” While nearly all Islamic nonprofits clamored for donations during the holy month, Saied says her group wanted its appeals to underscore why boosting women’s leadership was still essential.
The group collected zakat donations for its annual food drive for Ramadan and toy drive for Eid al-Fitr , the holiday that marks the close of the holy month. This year, the charity reworked volunteering at those efforts to accommodate social-distancing measures. It also canceled its interfaith iftar, the meal during Ramadan that breaks each day’s fast after sundown. And while it hosted three Facebook Live events, the charity otherwise abstained from virtual programs. It also launched a fundraising drive on Facebook but focused most of its efforts on calling past donors to ask them for continued support.
The results were mixed. The charity raised an estimated $10,000 on Facebook to fund its general operating expenses and collected roughly $36,000 in zakat contributions to provide Eid gifts for children and gift cards to grocery and halal stores, so families could purchase food that’s been processed in accordance with Islamic law.
In all, the charity raised about $50,000 during Ramadan through unrestricted donations, zakat contributions, emergency grant money and a $7,500 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program. During a typical Ramadan, the food and toy drive alone would attract more than $50,000 in zakat-eligible gifts.
The group has already seen declines in individual giving. Its donors are largely split among doctors, small business owners, and service-industry employees, Said says.
“The physicians, for the most part, are still giving, but the smaller donors and any donors that are related to [the restaurant and tourism] industries have really dropped off,” she says. “It’s been quite a challenge, with our increased expenses, to try to raise that money.”
While her charity scraped through this Ramadan, Saied worries that those who can continue to make contributions will choose to give to bigger nonprofits whose missions are more directly tied to the public-health crisis.
“It’s so important for people to support the smaller, local nonprofits because they’re doing the work on the ground in these communities that a lot of the bigger nonprofits are not,” she says. “It’s so important to make sure that you don’t forget them.”
Article Courtesy: The Chronicle of Philanthropy