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.

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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

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