Is philanthropy inherently undemocratic?

I am reading Peter Frumkin’s Strategic Giving, a must read for anyone interested in understanding the current debates in the field of philanthropy and also teaching a course on Governance and civil society in the U.S. Together, these two sources are shaping my ideas about democracy, civic engagement and political theory. I will discuss the somewhat controversial idea that Frumkin raises in his book with a question: Is Philanthropy inherently undemocratic? Frumkin argues that it is so, and I will argue why I don’t agree with this premise. I present three of his ideas and my analysis of the same:

  1. Philanthropy is undemocratic because philanthropists are usually the rich and those with influence, who set the agenda for their work, with virtually no restrictions. It is not based on equal participation – as equal and fair participation is the basis of democratic theory. To quote Frumkin: “One conception of accountability is rooted in democratic theory- whether by vote. Philanthropy is profoundly undemocratic in that donors do not give their recipients the ability to recall them or reverse their behavior and in also that the power elites use their power and wealth to enact their own vision for the public good.”(Pg. 75). Frumkin further points out that: “The biggest fear is that philanthropy does not have adequate accountability mechanisms. Without real way to hold donors accountable, many leaders in the field worry that philanthropy will never have the impetus to improve its performance and become more effective (Pg. 71).

I disagree with Frumkin to the extent that donors, who are often quite vigilant about the activities of the nonprofit can, and often do change their priorities in giving, if they think that the mission of the organization is not being served. In this respect, I believe there is accountability in the sector. While control of agenda and accountability are problems and very real ones, they are not a mirage. There are structures of accountability that keep nonprofits from abusing the trust of the people they serve. While there is no one mechanism that can stop this abuse, I believe that as an overall system, taken together – with IRS, private audits, annual reports, donor vigilance can all keep the nonprofit in check.

2. Frumkin points out that philanthropy is private in scope and in agenda setting and this makes it problematic, since its impact is public. Also, he adds that philanthropy is different from other forms of private consumption in three ways:

a. It has tax breaks associated with it

b. Its impact on others

c. Power symmetries that result when one person or institution gives money to another person or institution

In these respects, philanthropists can act on their own free will and impact the public, through their private initiative. This giving as a very private agenda setting is considered undemocratic.

While this is true and Foundations can set agendas that go directly against government policies – think of George Soros in Eastern Europe for example – inherently, this can be considered democratic, in that it is free speech. While in the U.S. this is protected constitutionally, as long as it does not incite violence or is clearly illegal. The process itself is democratic and is just one of the rights given to a citizen. When it starts to subvert the system significantly, in terms of undermining systems of government or the constitution that is when it becomes undemocratic

3. The question of accountability: Given that philanthropists are not held accountable in the same way as is an elected official is, this can be considered an unaccountable system.

I argue that conversely, if one considers that ultimately the philanthropist is bound by social, legal and cultural norms and also audits by IRS, this system does show some level of accountability – though of a different kind. This is not the direct accountability structure that is prevalent in a participative democracy, but one of indirect checks and balances. While private foundations may have more leeway and freedom in doing what they please, other nonprofits are not as free. Also, one must remember that effectiveness, accountability and legitimacy are the three factors that he mentions as being at the heart of many debates in philanthropy. These are unresolved issues and will perhaps remain so, as long as philanthropists continue to do what they are doing. The question in my mind, is not whether philanthropy is democratic or not, but whether the organizations that philanthropists fund are true to their mission and do what they set out to do- with integrity, compassion and care.



Frumkin Peter. Strategic giving – The Art and Science of Philanthropy. The uni of  Chicago Press. Chicago. 2006





Khalil Gibran on Giving

Giving chapter V , from “The Prophet,” Khalil Gibran

Then said a rich man, “Speak to us of Giving.”

And he answered:

You give but little when you give of your possessions.

It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

Source: -
Source: –

For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow?

And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city?

And what is fear of need but need itself?

Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, thirst that is unquenchable?

There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.

And there are those who have little and give it all.

These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty.

There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward.

And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism.

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue;

They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.

Though the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.

It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;

And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving

And is there aught you would withhold?

All you have shall some day be given;

Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’.

You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”

The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.

They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.

Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights is worthy of all else from you.

And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.quote-Khalil-Gibran-generosity-is-giving-more-than-you-can-104463

And what desert greater shall there be than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?

And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?

See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.

For in truth it is life that gives unto life – while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

And you receivers – and you are all receivers – assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives.

Rather rise together with the giver on his gifts as on wings;

For to be overmindful of your debt, is to doubt his generosity who has the free-hearted earth for mother, and God for father.

What is the role of religion in philanthropic giving?


A report I read recently claimed that British Muslims are more generous than all other faith communities in the U.K. The report said: “Followers of Islam gave an average of $567 compared to Jewish givers who donated around $412, according to the survey of just over 4,000 people in the U.K. Christians gave considerably less. Protestants donated an average of $308, while Roman Catholics gave around $272, the poll found. Atheists averaged just $177.” It is available here and makes some interesting observations and points to data that is compelling. While the findings are interesting and definitely worth debating, I think the question is somewhat misplaced, and a better framework to use to analyze this is through looking at the role of religious discernment in giving and what motivations people have, to give. It may be worthwhile to focus on whether there is a greater religious consciousness among Muslims about giving and whether they are they better informed, or is this because Zakat is mandated in the religion and people are “Returning to religion,” as Jonathan Benthall famously argued.

Paul Schervish, in his essay Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions[i] has pointed out, the following two questions have become important for our generation, to consider:

  1. How can wealth become  a tool to achieve the deeper purposes of life, including charitable giving, when acquiring more wealth or augmenting one’s standard of living have ceased to be of high importance?
  2. How can religious discernment help individuals choose and carry out those deeper purposes for the use of their resources?

While I am not contesting the results of this finding, and actually feel good about these results, my thesis is that the questions being asked and those being investigated do not capture the complexity of the phenomenon of giving and while useful as a Public Relations exercise, do not illuminate the complexity of giving within the Muslim community, nor the religious motivations that go into making those charitable donations.

The bigger question for me, as a researcher is also methodological, to the extent that whether this captures the trends in society, overall and to what extent is this representative of the population, as a whole. As any statistician will tell you, statistics hide more than what they reveal. Here are some problems that I have with purely data-driven, survey based studies.

  1. While the report points out that: “ In total 4,036 people answered the question: “How much, if at all, would you say you generally donated to charities last year?” it does not point to more nuanced ways of looking at what they donated to, why and with what intention in mind? These are all very important questions, as they are at the core of trying to understanding philanthropic motivations and the intended results that philanthropy is expected to have. The “moral biography,” of giving, as Schervish points out is as critical to understanding giving behavior as is the dollar amount. I would argue that this is more significant, in terms of understanding how the wealthy conceptualize their role in their societies.

As he further points out: “Thus far I have used the term moral biography to refer to how individuals implement their unique combination of capacities and purposes. My use follows that of Emilie Durkheim, for whom it means a normative orientation or direction by a full range of formal and informal mores – the horizon of laws, customs and conscience that direct daily practice. What Durkheim does not recognize is the reality of genuine spiritual or religious life in the way today’s believers would understand that reality.” (pp.129)

  1. Who is a Muslim? – This seems like a simple question, but is not. While in many Arab and Asian societies, the question of who is a Muslim is determined by the state or the community, in the West, anyone who is self-declared to be a Muslim is one. This includes even those sects such as Nation of Islam or others, who are not considered ‘mainstream’ by other Muslims, and do not generally have many associations or interactions with the greater Muslim population.
  1. What about anonymous giving? – This is the third problem with data driven giving, and one that does not look at the motivations or other aspects of giving. Looking at the largest data of Million dollar gifts given, on the Million Dollar List, you can see several ‘anonymous donors.’ This, in my opinion is a common occurrence, not only in high networth giving but also giving among common people.
  2. How do we capture Muslims giving to secular causes? – This is an aspect of the issue that is not discussed often. One can argue that Muslims give a good amount of money to secular causes and there are many non-Muslims who give to Muslim causes. Surveys such as these do not do a very thorough job of capturing this data, which is key to telling the story of Muslim Philanthropy.

Paul Schervish, points out that religious discernment and the positive cultural context are important, as people may become more charitable, in the future. In the case of Muslims, around the world, one can argue that perhaps they are becoming more charitable, given that there are more avenues to give – with online platforms, newer NGOs’ starting operations, greater awareness of both national and international crises and situations where humanitarian relief is required. Schervish argues that this discernment is occurring among the newly wealthy, either through conversations with their pastors, spouses or financial consultants. He further pushes the boundaries of what is “religious,” by including any activity that is well thought out and conducted with reflection. This, he occurs when people are attuned to a philosophy of giving and care.

In conclusion, while I do not disagree that Muslims are the among the most generous faith based group in the U.K. and also, arguably in other western societies; the data that is gathered needs to be examined in context of the discussion above.

[i] Schervish Paul. Religious Discernment of Philanthropic Decisions. Indiana Uni Press. 2010

My experience as a dictator

I was a dictator for half a day during a simulation in a Public Administration and Democracy course I took at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where I was finishing up my MPA in 2010. I volunteered to be the General of a fictitious state, ‘Kush,’ which is landlocked between the mongrelized state of Zanj and neo-capitalist Sahel in Africa. A small country, whose chief exports were Peanuts and a fledgling Airlines to support it, I was to be the General who had overthrown the King and the one who was tasked with restoring ‘democracy’. Sounds familiar? Based on my experiences being a ‘dictator,’ and living the life of one, albeit fictitiously, I learned during this process that a ruler, once in power will try to stay there for as long as he/she can. In the absence of a strong state and constitutional mandate, most rulers tend to be Machiavellian in their approach to power. They will hold onto it at all costs, unless the incentive to give it up is higher.

source: Creative commons
source: Creative commons

During my brief rule, I had unlimited power and equally big challenges: An Army at my command and the entire country with millions of starving people to feed. I jailed all possible opponents, executed a few, appointed new judges to the Supreme Court and modified the constitution. I also sold the mining rights for our Bauxite and Manganese ore that could bring in a few million dollars in the next five years. I tried to do ‘good,’ even if it meant hurting a few people and destroying the careers (not to mention lives)of a few others. The one tactical move I made during this process, is this: If I had to retain power, I had to keep the laws that kept the status quo, in place. This meant more ‘emergency laws,’ more ‘control’ mechanisms, that enriched my power, as a ruler. In my attempts to remain in power for as long as it took to restore ‘order’ and ‘normalcy,’ I manipulated laws and people to my liking and allied with those who agreed with me and distanced those who did disagreed – this was a battle for survival, my own as well as that of my beloved country, Kush. There was no room for dithering.


Egypt as Kush?

I would argue that there are striking parallels between our fictitious Kush and current day Egypt. In this blog post, I will examine the ongoing situation in Egypt, with the military in power under General Sisi and argue that the ‘democracy’ he restored is nothing but a sham and the U.S. needs to leverage its foreign aid, work with the European Union (E.U) and Gulf Arab states to push Egypt towards actual democratization. General Sisi, who is the Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed forces since 12 August 2012 and the current Deputy Prime Minister of Egypt, played a key role in the ouster of Mr. Mohammed Morsi, the former President of Egypt in the 30 June ‘revolution.’ His rule is increasingly being seen as autocratic, if the recent extension of the Emergency laws, massive crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members is an indication. Egypt may not be as landlocked as Kush nor as desperately poor, but it is getting there. With a drop in tourism, increased unemployment and dip in Gross Domestic Product, the country is struggling to provide employment for its millions of youth. The country is in a crisis situation, according to International Crisis Group (ICG), in a recent report.


This ‘democratic revolution,’ as we are seeing is turning out to be nothing but another Hosni Mubarak style rule by the Army. As a recent New York Times Op-Ed pointed out, : “There seems to be no end to the draconian controls as the military seeks to restrain the news media, manipulate the courts, misuse security services and restrict civil society groups. If it prevents the Muslim Brotherhood from operating at all, as many expect, it will go even farther than Mr. Mubarak. The process of revising the Constitution that was put in place by the government seems as flawed as the one implemented by Mr. Morsi. The results are almost certain to be regarded by many Egyptians as illegitimate.”


Emergency Laws in Egypt

The Emergency Laws of 1958 that were put in place as Law No. 162 of 1958 put severe restrictions on media, suspension of constitutional rights and extended Police powers, another indicator of the autocratic behavior of its current leader. A recent Al Jazeera English report points out that the Emergency laws existed for the 30 year rule under Mr. Hosni Mubarak, and they were withdrawn for a brief period of time after his ouster. General Sisi’s administration has brought it back into play, citing increased disturbances from the Muslim Brotherhood activists and other ‘terrorists,’ who are planning attacks against the government.  The article further points out that the ongoing crackdown against the MB is the reason that the Emergency Law is in place: “Authorities have been cracking down on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists since his ouster, arresting at least 2,000 the past month. Senior leaders of the Brotherhood, a powerful organization in Egypt, have been charged or are under investigation on series of allegations, particularly incitement to violence. At the same time, extremists’ attacks on police stations, government offices and churches have grown more brazen in southern Egypt.”

I would argue that these laws are the stick that the current interim government is using to beat the opposition. Even though the Emergency Laws cannot be in place for any longer without a public referendum, the current government is likely to ensure that they remain, so it gives the government unlimited power to detain, deal with the opposition it faces.


Does the U.S., E.U. have a role to play?

It is always good to ask who gains and who loses, when analyzing political transitions. The same may be true in case of Egypt today. With the old order under Hosni Mubarak, the Army, ruling elite and certain businesses thrived. And given the strategic geopolitical location, much of the Arab world and its rulers also thrived with the arrangement, as it stood. Business was as usual. With the current influx of money from Gulf States and the importance that they are giving to keeping the MB out of power, there are clearly divisions within the ruling elite that need to be factored in our analysis.

This quote from the NY Times Op-Ed is instructive: “All this comes on top of a crackdown on peaceful demonstrators after the coup that killed more than 1,000 people. The Obama administration has quietly suspended assistance to the Egyptian government and called off military exercises, but it will soon have to decide whether to allow the transfer of other aid to the military. Given the government’s insistence on repressing its people and pursuing a self-destructive course, that money should be withheld.”

As the same  NY Times Op-ed further points out, using America’s strategic leverage in forcing Egypt to adhere to international norms (lifting the Emergency Laws, providing due process to Mr. Morsi ) may be the only way out of the current quagmire. This, coupled with European Union’s mediation may solve the current crisis, as the ICG points out: “The European Union (EU) has emerged as an important potential mediator, a fact that reflects the intense anti-Americanism that has enveloped both sides of the Egyptian divide. Others (including, behind the scenes, Washington) should work in unison. The goal, easier said than done, must be to propose a middle ground between the Islamists’ insistence that Morsi be reinstated and the constitution restored, and the resolve of the military and its allies that there

will be no turning back.” This is becoming increasingly hard as the MB’s position has not softened, nor are General Sisi and others in the interim government willing to negotiate with them. Islamist TV channels have been shut down, hundreds of MB activists’ arrested, and bloody crackdowns against them continue.

The M.B. feels increasingly that it has not received a fair deal. As the ICG report cited earlier points out: “They blame a military intent on restoring the old order, and an elite dismissive of their right to participate in politics. Hence their relatively uncompromising position on issues such as Morsi’s reinstatement (though they apparently might contemplate a possible resignation as part of an overall package) and the validity of the 2012 constitution they consider their crowning achievement and basic guarantor of their political freedoms.” This seems eerily similar to my experience, leading Kush. Faced with opposition from other ‘old-order’ loyalists, I refused to negotiate, jailing a few and remaining stubborn in my belief that the country did not have to go back on that path, again.


As Simon Blacke points out in his perceptive article here: “Egypt underscores an important lesson from history: with rare exception, even when you topple the ruling elite, someone else will simply step up to fill the void… just as the French traded Louis XVI for Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in the 1790s. This is why advocating for political change, while virtuous and noble in deed, is ultimately a wasted effort. Power-hungry megalomaniacs and their sycophantic yes-men will always rise to the top, conning the masses along the way that ‘change is coming’. It’s all a big snow job.” Also, sadly, my behavior as the de-factor ruler of Kush during the simulation exercise in class was not too far off from that of General Sisi and his cohort. A man’s dark, ugly side emerges when he is given unlimited power. This ‘democratic revolution,’ facilitated by General Sisi is an unfortunate example of that.

Innovations in Philanthropy: Community Foundations and Faith-based organizations undergoing a radical shift

“There hasn’t been any ‘innovation’ in Islamic philanthropy in the last 1400 years,” said Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion and founder of ‘Zakatability,’ a startup that is aiming at efficient zakat distribution through online technologies. His organization is all set to change this, using a combination of traditional norms and modern technologies. While one can argue that there hasn’t been the kind of innovation within the Islamic, Arab American philanthropic space, in comparison with the ‘mainstream’ philanthropy, there is a lot of activity in the humanitarian aid, education and other spheres where arguably, innovation and change is taking place, albeit slowly. Practice is informing theory, in this case. While the rate of adoption of these innovations is different across the country and varies between various ethnic groups, there is little doubt that the traditional ‘one on one’ giving is being replaced by a more anonymous ‘institutional’ giving in some cases, while the ‘one on one’ giving is being reintroduced in radically new ways, as in the case of organizations such as Zakatability.

Pic courtesy:
Pic courtesy:

American society has been projected as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, traditions and norms of living. But a closer look shows that this is not entirely true. While in some ways this is occurring, in others, many groups are keeping to their traditions, religious and cultural values and norms that are markedly different from the ‘mainstream’ norms. Before we delve into the different innovations, it is important to define what I mean by ‘innovation.’ Merriam dictionary defines it as:

1: the introduction of something new

2: a new idea, method, or device

I will use this definition all along, in my brief survey. I use three examples of organizations, that are using communications, strategic networking and youth engagement in novel ways, going beyond the ‘traditional,’ i.e, family or mosque/church level giving, to encompass a broader ‘community.’

Here are a few examples of organizations that are keeping the traditions of giving in the parent/original culture intact, while imparting some of the methods of ‘scientific philanthropy,’ to the younger generation, and also to some of the older generation Americans.

  1. Teen Grant-Making Initiative: An initiative of the Center for Arab American Philanthropy, that is part of ACCESS, based in Dearborn, MI, this initiative trains young Arab American high schoolers in aspects of philanthropy and grant-making. The initiative started in 2011 and is doing well, points out their office bearer, whom I interviewed a few weeks ago. Philanthropy and grant-making is conceptualized as a way to break stereotypes of the Arab American community and this measure may well serve that purpose. More details on this project can be found here. The mission of the organization is : “To make a difference in our community through grantmaking and community service.”

2.      Zakatability – A start-up founded by Reza Aslan, author and entrepreneur, most well-known for his book No God but God and recently, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, this organization seeks to reach out to poor Muslims around the world, using a model similar to Kiva, i.e, one on one giving using online technologies. This is yet to pilot in its full form, but given the expertise and experience of the team behind it, the project is sure to make some waves in the field of Islamic philanthropy.

3.Young donors programIslamic Relief USA – Though not institutionalized like the TGI, Islamic Relief encourages young children and youth groups to participate in small fund-raisers at schools and parties at home, to raise money. This, one can argue is keeping in line with the ‘traditional’ norms of sadaqa or voluntary alms by Muslims, but at the same time is an ‘innovation’ as much of the money goes towards humanitarian relief and other modern means of philanthropy, something that the older generation of Americans, don’t relate to, too well. Here is an example of this program.

It is good to recall that the only real innovation in philanthropy in the Muslim world was the Waqf, or the private endowment, which was a borrowed concept from pre-Islamic Sassanian Empire. And this was institutionalized as public policy under the Abbassid Empire in 13th century onwards. The fruits of that effort are everywhere to be seen – from the oldest university in the world i.e, Al-Azhar to modern day western foundations that have borrowed many of the same principles as the earlier Waqfs. For more on this, please see my earlier post on this here.

What the literature on Diffusion of Innovation tells us

Diffusion of Innovation theory is one of the most well-researched and solid Sociological theories that looks at the rate of innovation adoption, the factors that go into it and how it varies, across various parameters. I believe that this theory is useful for us to understand to what extent some of the innovations will or will not be accepted in the field of community based philanthropy/ faith-based giving.

In a fascinating book on diffusion of innovation in Rural Sociology, Frederick C. Fiegel and Peter Korsching William F. Ogburn is best known for his “cultural lag hypothesis,” (1922) that stipulates that two correlated elements of a culture might change at different rates, thereby setting up a situation in which a lesser degree of adjustment between the two elements might be perceived. (Pp. 3) An example of this the authors point out is the development of automobiles and roads did not correspond together. Achieving a reasonable accommodation between the two remains a problem, even today. The tension in the Arab American/American Muslim paradigm of giving are in the norms of giving, eligibility of recipients (Islamic norms stipulate who can receive zakat etc.) and also the notion of not ‘wasting money’ in administrative costs etc. that needs to be addressed.

The further argue that It is precisely the technology-as-lead variant of the cultural lag hypothesis that became important for diffusion research. The bulk of the early diffusion research took it for granted that tech innovations in agriculture were leading elements in cultural change. An array of non-tech elements of culture (attitudes, values, social relationships and so on – then represented the lagging elements). The primary objective of much of the early diffusion research was to determine which of the lagging elements were critical in delaying full acceptance of the leading (tech) elements.” (Fleigel, Korshing. Pp. 4)

One of the insights from this literature based on Ryan and Gross’s study (1943) is that the source of knowledge for adoption of technology by farmers is crucial. Salespersons were the source of knowledge in majority of cases followed by neighbours. They also suggested that there are possible trait typologies in farmers that can be analyzed to see how they adopt a new innovation. In the case of Islamic and Arab American case, the source of knowledge are either the religious leaders or local community leaders, who set the agenda for formal giving. While there is not much empirical evidence on how giving occurs, anecdotally, this seems to be the case.

While organized giving among American Muslims, Arab Americans is arguably new, this field is definitely witnessing a lot of activity. While much of philanthropy still exists in informal networks, and beneficiaries are usually relatives, friends or someone known to the donor, this seems to be shifting if the success of organizations such as Islamic Relief, Muslims Without Borders, Muslim Aid is any indication.



  1. Frederick C. Fliegel and Peter F. Korsching. Diffusion Research in Rural Sociology.Sociology Ecology Press. Middleton. Wisconsin. 2001