Mosques depend on Ramadan for a third of their fundraising. Is there a better way?

(RNS) — When mosques head into the final days of Ramadan early next month, Muslims around the United States will set aside plenty of extra time for the nightly prayers that wind around the imam’s recital of the last chapter of the Quran. They know that sometime during the 20 “rakahs” of prayer, usually after the eighth rakat, the fundraising begins.

Most Muslims are familiar with the intensity of the fundraising that occurs on this particular night in Ramadan, which goes for operational costs, expansion projects or building a new mosque. It is the highlight of Ramadan fundraising as a whole, and in turn Ramadan is the prime fundraising month for Muslim organizations. In 2021, according to the Muslim Ad Network, Muslim Americans donated $1.8 billion to domestic and international causes in Ramadan, with the average household giving more than $2,000.

Before Ramadan begins each year, my husband and I, like many American Muslim families, discuss where we want to give and approximately how much. This includes how we want to distribute our annual “zakat” the obligatory almsgiving to those in need that is the third of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims are taught that there are immense blessings to gain by engaging in charitable work and donations this month. Although zakat can be given at any time of year, the majority, as the latest Muslim American Zakat Report from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy showed, give zakat in Ramadan.

Whether you’re a fundraiser or a donor, it’s an exhilarating and exhausting time. For those Muslims who look forward to a time of intense spiritual growth, it can also be tiresome. To not engage in Ramadan fundraising campaigns is to leave money on the table, but is it possible to get out of the mindset of perpetual fundraising in the holiest time of the year?

I asked Shariq Siddiqui, an assistant professor of philanthropic studies and director of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at the Lilly school, if it’s possible to de-link Ramadan and fundraising so Muslims can focus on worship.

The short answer? No. “We do have to think of ways we can diversify our funding, but at the same time if we’re not actively engaged in fundraising in Ramadan, we may lose out in individual giving. People want to give,” he said.

Worshipers, socially distanced due to COVID-19 concerns, bow in prayer in the mosque of The Islamic Society of Boston during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Boston. Islam's holiest month is a period of intense prayer, dawn-to-dusk fasting and nightly feasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Worshippers, socially distanced due to COVID-19 concerns, bow in prayer in the mosque of The Islamic Society of Boston during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, Friday, April 16, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

The question, Siddiqui said, is, once the “crazy-busy fundraising is concluded, do we have enough money to get through the rest of the year?” Creating a development strategy that diversifies a mosque or Muslim organization’s portfolio is crucial, he said.  

“If Muslim American organizations develop a major gifts strategy, then … Ramadan becomes less stressful,” he said. Siddiqui, a principal investigator on the Lilly school’s Community Collaborative Initiative, also encouraged Muslim organizations to pursue foundational grants and consider collaborating with other nonprofits for such grants.

Siddiqui suggests that mosques’ current fundraising programs could benefit from more strategic planning. “When I think about the development strategies (of mosques and Muslim organizations), it feels like I’m going out to sea, I’m going to throw out a big net and see what that pulls back in,” Siddiqui said. “There’s stress on the ecosystem in how we raise money.”

Siddiqui suggests that mosques and other Muslim organizations (some of which already do this) invest in a donor database and engage with donors throughout the year. “We know that Ramadan through Dul Hijjah (the Islamic month when the Hajj pilgrimage occurs) are big fundraising months,” he said, as are November and December. But keeping the push going through the first quarter of the year could bring in significant support. “If we do this, you’ll find that 70-80% of your fundraising work is already done before the next Ramadan rolls around,” he said.

Another way to take the pressure off Ramadan as a fundraising month is to invest, instead of living hand to mouth. Aslam Merchant, founder of Inaeya Wealth, a Shariah (Islamic law)-compliant investment company, told me the traditional method of fundraising in Ramadan has the lowest return on investment — and may distract from what draws people to the mosque.

“Somehow fundraising is the easiest thing to do. You gather people, you have dinners, you gather them in ‘taraweeh,’ you tell them what you’ll do with their money,” said Merchant, referring to the nightly Ramadan prayers. “But often people are complaining because there are donation boxes everywhere, and they come to pray but are always asked to give money. There is a better way.”

Merchant said endowments — effectively a brokerage account similar to an IRA or 401K — can make mosques and Muslim organizations sustainable in Shariah-compliant ways. “It’s perpetual, and you don’t draw from it, except for the earnings and as needed. And you can put land, stocks, money and investments into an endowment.”

Yet only 2% of U.S. mosques’ annual income comes from endowment funds, according to ISPU’s 2020 American Mosque Survey. Many churches, synagogues and other houses of worship have long used endowments to sustain themselves and grow. “Why not us?” asked Merchant. “That way our future generations don’t have to worry where the salaries of the staff come from. They can work on growing and serving their communities.”

In the meantime, how do those who help with fundraising balance this necessary work with the worship we want to do in Ramadan?

Afshan Malik, director of development for Rabata, a women-focused Islamic scholarship and educational organization, said Dr. Tamara Gray, the group’s founder, taught that planning is the key. “Don’t walk in (to Ramadan) without a plan,” said Malik. “You have to have your work goals, family goals and fundraising goals,” while reminding me, “Donors want to give. Ramadan is where our community really prioritizes their giving.”

Malik’s bright positivity made me wonder: What was her motivator? What about people for whom making fundraising appeals is challenging?

“It can be awkward to ask for donations,” she replied. “So we try to make it a light lift. We optimize those who want to help. We break it down. We have donation matches and a monthly donation goal. We work on pinpointing the moments that touch people’s hearts.

“It’s very unromantic to have all these Google spreadsheets and charts to envision what Ramadan is going to look like. But it’s also fun and invigorating,” Malik said.

I’ve always known, as Malik said, that the focus of Ramadan fundraising isn’t just the money itself but trying to earn Allah’s “barakah,” or blessings — for the mosque, organization or people making the appeal for their charitable work and the donor who is doing the giving to support the work. But when I’m inundated and overwhelmed with fundraising appeals, the reminder definitely helps, as does deciding ahead of time which organizations and mosques I want to support.

But I wouldn’t mind, though, if the night of the Quran khatam could just be focused on that: finishing the Quran in Ramadan.

(Dilshad D. Ali is a freelance journalist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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