Ramadan Reflection Day 17: Giving Better vs. Giving More -- Being Smarter With Our Charity

Many of us tend to give more during Ramadan. Be smart about your giving. Look to support those who have sensible ideas, are visionary in their scope, and have the skills to get done what they are telling you they want to do.
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Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.

A recent UK survey found that Muslims are more charitable than their religious counterparts. According to the survey conducted by ICM Research, Muslims gave an average of $567, Jewish givers $472, Protestants $308, Roman Catholics $272, and atheists $177 in the past year. This follows the findings of a recent Pew survey which indicated 77 percent of Muslims donated to charity. The sense of generosity and compassion are definitely there. What we lack is a strategy to our giving, both as individuals and more broadly as a community.

"The likeness of those who spend their wealth in the Way of God, is as the likeness of a grain (of corn); it grows seven ears, and each ear has a hundred grains. God gives manifold increase to whom He pleases. And God is All-Sufficient for His creatures' needs, All-Knowing." ~ Quran, 2:261

The Quranic parable that likens giving charity to the planting of grain is beautiful and most apt. For that seed to yield, its planted a crop that grows and increases to the maximum potential harvest possible, it must be planted in a place that makes sense, at a time that makes sense, and cultivated and nurtured. If it is simply thrown on the ground without any foresight or care, some benefit might be derived, but definitely not what fully could be. There's also a good chance that it will end up yielding nothing.

As individuals we have to be smarter about what we are putting our money into. It's not responsible to simply give to a "Muslim" cause or to causes simply because they are run by Muslims. Rather we should look to see how efficiently and effectively the money we are giving will actually be utilized. Are the people who run the organization that I am donating my money to running it in a way that makes sense? Or is my donation being eaten up through inefficient mechanisms and processes or by groups that claim to be doing work, but realistically aren't doing anything at all? Give to organizations and groups that make sense and are doing meaningful work.

I would argue once we start to be smarter about our individual giving, we'll in turn begin to be more strategic about our collective giving. Built into our tradition is a mandated charity, zakat, that can generate a powerful and much-needed revenue stream for many of our communities if we actually became strategic in how we utilized it. And even beyond our zakat, the non-mandatory charity that many of us give, sadaqah, could be spent in a smarter way.

If I give $100 a year in charity and you give a $100 a year in charity, and we pool it together towards one project, person, etc. we've now doubled our impact. If this was done on a mass scale, the results could be tremendous. By putting some more thought into it, we could help empower existing institutions and endeavor towards building new ones that our communities are sorely in need of. We might be giving more than our brothers and sisters from other faiths, but they are giving smarter. As such, we see a growth and stability in institutions based in other religious traditions, but in the Muslim community that creativity is stifled.

It doesn't make sense to me when I visit a city that has multiple mosques but no domestic violence shelters, free clinics, transitional housing, advocacy groups, arts initiatives, scholarship and fellowship programs, food pantries, or a number of other projects and programs that we definitely have the talent, know-how, and financial capacity to build. Everyone's initial reaction is to put money into building more mosques. Despite putting millions of dollars into expanding the parking lot of that mosque for the next 10 years, announcements are still made weekly that a car is blocking something or someone or is somehow on top of someone. Twenty other mosques are then built in a 10-mile radius of that first mosque, potentially an Islamic School pops up somewhere in the mix which is good for elementary school but the high school level doesn't do so well, and then institutional growth stops in that community. We have to be better than that.

Many cities have enough mosques at this point. Learn to get along with the people in your community and loosen your grip on the mosque that you are privileged to serve in a leadership capacity so that people don't splinter off and then try to build their own. It leads to donor fatigue and cannibalization, and, from a religious standpoint, once the masjid is built we have to ensure that it is maintained and in existence always. The money just keeps going into it creating a vacuum and stunting our growth as a community.

We're in an early stage of planning and conversation around building a better system of zakat and sadaqa collection for our community at the Islamic Center at NYU. Our hope is that it will lead to further empowerment as well as provide opportunities for us to benefit the city that we live in. Inshallah it will be successful and a source of benefit for many.

Many of us tend to give more during Ramadan. Be smart about your giving. Look to support those who have sensible ideas, are visionary in their scope, and have the skills to get done what they are telling you they want to do. Give locally and empower your community as well as sending a portion of your wealth to those who are in need elsewhere.

For those of you who are looking for a place to make a contribution, you are more than welcome to make a tax-deductible gift to our center through NYU's Office of Development by clicking here. We'll make sure that it is used in a sensible and beneficial way.

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