A New Era of Muslim-American Philanthropy Requires Fewer Obstacles to Giving

A New Era of Muslim-American Philanthropy Requires Fewer Obstacles to Giving

In his recent speech to the Muslim world, President Obama pledged to work with American Muslims to ensure they are able to fulfill their Zakat, a religious obligation to charitable giving. Even amid the din of controversy and cable commentary, this promise did not go unnoticed. But before the president has a chance to follow through on this commitment, there are steps charitable organizations can take to reduce the obstacles facing Muslim American donors.

Zakat is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and refers to giving a small portion of one's income to charity. While accurate assessments of how much money Muslim Americans donate each year are hard to come by, some estimates suggest that it tops $10 billion, much of it spent here in the United States building mosques and schools and funding non-religious organizations.

But since 9/11, complicated regulations on charitable giving by Muslims and crackdowns on Muslim charities working in the United States have made it harder for Muslim Americans to feel secure when donating. Just last month, five leaders of what was once the nation's largest Muslim charity were sentenced to decades in prison after being convicted of aiding Hamas, which had been declared a terrorist group in the mid 1990s.

Many Muslim-American philanthropists have donated in spite of the risks, only to find that the recipients of their charitable gifts had been shut down, accounts frozen by the Treasury Department. Knowing how to donate your money is hard enough when all you're worried about is fundraising efficiency; layer on the prospect that your hard-earned gift could unwittingly fall into the wrong hands, land you in prison, or be frozen indefinitely by the federal government and you have a poor recipe for generosity.

This insecurity has a real impact on Muslim-American giving and is something philanthropic organizations should work to combat as they seek to engage the diverse Muslim community. The 2006 study by Adil Najam, Philanthropy by the Pakistani-American Diaspora, showed that while Pakistani Americans give on average 3.5 percent of their annual family income to charity for a total of approximately $1 billion per year most Pakistanis would give more to charity if there were institutions that they could trust. As it stands, three-quarters of gifts from the Pakistani-American community come in the form of time, while $250 million, or roughly a quarter of all annual gifts, was given to individuals rather than organizations.

Some of the costs of this insecurity are self-evident: charitable organizations lose a powerful and generous donor base. Moreover, Muslim communities are left with fewer services and opportunities for social engagement, leaving them increasingly isolated and apart. It is time for change, and we applaud President Obama's willingness to stand in front of a world-wide audience and promise to bring his unique brand of reform to Zakat. Now it is up to philanthropic leaders to follow his lead.

America's true power and security in the twenty-first century will lie in the connectedness of our citizens to each other and to others around the world, along with the strength of the social networks we build to break down the walls that keep us apart. Enabling Muslim Americans to easily and safely fulfill Zakat is an important first step to building bonds and goodwill between the United States and the Muslim world that will make us more interconnected and safer.

Organizations should provide donors more information and transparency on how donations are spent in the form of feedback and updates on exactly what those contributions helped support. Indeed, allowing donors to see the impact of their gifts builds a connection between donor and cause and will help them feel increasingly confident in the results and legitimacy of the organizations they support.

Muslim Advocates, an organization established by the National Association of Muslim Lawyers to offer legal and policy expertise to government leaders and the Muslim-American community, has worked to help donors overcome fears about philanthropy with this helpful guidance document on charitable giving for Muslim Americans. More organizations should follow suit by taking steps to reduce fears about giving and make it easier for donors to meet all necessary legal requirements.

Finally, nonprofits should leverage the power of technology and social networking to make contributing to legitimate, law-abiding nonprofits easier, safer, and more widely available to Muslim Americans. For example, in 2008 GlobalGiving, the online marketplace for philanthropy, partnered with Mecca.com, one of the world's biggest online communities for Muslims, to create a safe, online Ramadan initiative for Muslims to give back. Through this initiative, Muslim donors were able ensure that their gifts went to reputable organizations that satisfy IRS guidelines for international grantmaking, meet tax-deductible requirements, and follow anti-terrorism laws.

Clearly, existing regulations have influenced donations from Muslim Americans, so while President Obama's promise is an important one, waiting for the slow pace of Washington, D.C., reform will only delay the solutions available to us from the bottom-up. But as the president was fond of saying on the campaign trail, weare the change we've been looking for, so let's get to work.

Saima Zaman is a program officer at GlobalGiving in Washington, D.C. Previously, she served at the World Resources Institute. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Zaman also has a master's in public policy with a focus on public/private sector management from George Washington University.