Towards a Muslim Non-Profit Social Responsibility Policy

Non-Profits are vital to the communal fabric of the American Muslim community. Most Muslim non-profits are masajid. Others have specific other roles, such as legal services, social services, free clinics, dawa, civil rights or other programs. If you are involved with a nonprofit organization, as a board member, for example, one of the most important goals is to grow the non-Profit. So, if you are on the board of a Masjid, for example, you want to make sure that attendance is up, donations are up and any services you provide to the community increases over time. So, if your mission is to do good work that benefits Islam, the Muslim community, and humanity, you want to do more of it and ensure your work will continue long after you are no longer involved. Donors themselves often view their donations as investments and like to see growth like what they like to see when investing for themselves in the stock market. While some may take offense to the notion that a nonprofit is like a business, the similarities are just too great to ignore.

However, this desire and need to grow can be tempered with things that are not exactly in a Muslim organization’s mission. The biggest thing is to be socially responsible. The term “social responsibility” comes from the business world. It is the idea that business has a role beyond making profits and growing. A socially responsible organization has obligations to employees, neighbors, the environment, vendors and vendor’s employees. You want your organization, for profit or non-profit, to be a good citizen. Investors started to consider human rights, the environment and other social impacts of companies they invest in.

Social Responsibility is not about social or political activism, not really anyway. Different organizations work towards different outcomes, and many will not be involved with anything political. But politics can certainly come into the picture.

The concept of social responsibility is underdeveloped among American Muslim non-profits. It’s time we started addressing it. Here are a few places to start.

Poverty wages

One of the highest profile examples of social irresponsibility for many masajid has been imam pay. A few years ago, I was asked to help in a masjid dispute, and learned, the organization employed an imam of over 20 years of service to the community was paid poverty-level wages. It was shameful. This imam’s low pay was not an isolated incident. While in the years since, imam pay has gone up, at least in my local area, low pay for all employees has continued.

The issues often go beyond pay, but also grueling work conditions with no limits to the number of hours or responsibilities they may endure.  Non-Citizen imams are particularly vulnerable to abuse by masjid employers. Walking away from unfair conditions or even asserting their rights against an employer is not as easy to do as it would be for citizens.

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A fundamental principle should be for Muslim organizations to ensure that employees make a respectable living and that their working conditions, hours and responsibilities are fair, something better than an individual employee can negotiate on his or her own. There are budgetary concerns in doing this, as well as the fact that it is typically possible to find employees, including imams and teachers, willing to work for remarkably little. Muslim organizations should resolve that pay and employment conditions should be socially responsible.

Be Responsible with Zakat

Unfortunately; Zakat is widely subject to abuse by Muslim non-profits, many of whom have decided that the mere fact that an organization is a non-profit means they can accept Zakat for whatever they want. This privileges their power to use the funds over the rights of the Zakat eligible. The notion that fisabilillah (which is among criterion for Zakat eligibility) can mean practically anything is something I addressed in an earlier post with Sh. Usman Umarjee which you should read if you have not already.

The lack of appropriate criteria for using Zakat it is damaging to society, particularly the poor, and constitutes spiritual abuse by Muslim non-profits. Zakat is a compulsory act of worship for Muslims with use restricted in the Quran. Zakat funds must be treated differently from other funds. The best way to handle this is for Islamic organizations to enact stringent policies on Zakat and make sure the Zakat-eligible are not forgotten.

Fisabilillah is what?

Many nonprofits cannot survive without Volunteers. Volunteers are any non-Profit’s strongest supporters. We as a society like volunteers and want to encourage as many of them as possible.

At the same time, calling on people to volunteer their expertise can be exploitative. It may not always be clear where to draw the line.  There is some clarity though.  Nobody would object if a sound engineer volunteers to install a sound system for a Masjid.  However, a  Sheykh who teaches a class in an area of his expertise should be paid for the service. Asking someone who provides his expertise in the exact thing he is doing, where his skills are not marketable outside the context in which he is providing the service is abusive.

There are going to be times when it is not clear, however.  A Sheykh should have the opportunity to volunteer for things like other people. It is important as a community to develop criteria for when it is appropriate to rely on volunteers and when it is wrong to ask someone to volunteer.  A major goal here, beyond social responsibility, is to prevent spiritual abuse.   The policy should be driven by a sense of what is fair and not strictly by the market. Islamic organizations pay large honorariums for charismatic and well-known national figures, but often expect fisabilillah services from local Shuyukh, even those who may be on the verge of poverty.  They may happily oblige, but is it right to take advantage of that?

Clarity and Value Judgements

What the line is between encouraging volunteerism and economic exploitation of the good-hearted, it is not altogether clear. In fact, much of what is social responsibility is not clear yet for Muslim organizations.

While some social responsibility concerns, like Zakat abuse, plainly go into the realm of Fiqh, many do not. Any standards on what is socially responsible or not involves value judgments that go beyond halal and haram. Some of them may be political. Should the organization look to local printers and other vendors or go out of state or even overseas? Should only union hotels and banquet halls be used? Should the non-profit only purchase recycled paper be used? Should organizations apply for grants from security agencies and foreign governments to deal with “extremists” in the Muslim community? Should Muslim groups always observe BDS to support Palestinians?  Is it fine to have a 10-year-old lead tarawih prayers for 500 people in Ramadan for 30 nights and be uncompensated?  Whatever your response to these questions, there are no clear standards yet that donors and board members can be educated on about what is or what is not a socially responsible Muslim non-profit.

Perhaps it is time for such standards. I am sure I am missing a whole lot here, as this is an undeveloped area. Please let us know in the comments.

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4 responses to “Towards a Muslim Non-Profit Social Responsibility Policy”

  1. Tawfiq says:

    Jazakallah Khair Ahmad. I enjoyed meeting and presenting with you in Texas last year.

    I think what is needed is that every Board Member must go through some formal training regarding the duties and expectations of being a Board Member. This includes ethical and fiduciary duties.

    • Ahmed Shaikh says:

      Waiyyakum. Training is certainly important. So is board accountability, which appears less common. Even more important than that is a system of underlying principles that go far beyond (but also include) the board member’s legal obligations.

  2. Zaheer Aziz says:

    Its an interesting topic and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Many sub topics can be brought up for discussion. For Example

    1- Hiring and Firing of Imams. Reality vs Emotions. Real capability(knowledge) vs mere Public speaking capability
    2- Benefits in addition to salary.
    3- Retirement plan?
    4- Poor and vaguely written employment contracts.
    5- Expectations setting.
    6- Role of Imams in BOD elections?
    etc

  3. MJI says:

    Salam,
    How do I reach you privately to discuss and take your advice?

    Jazak Allah Khair

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