An artist as philanthropist : Umm Kulthum as an exemplar

For those who know Umm Kulthum , the Egyptian singer and iconoclast, they are also familiar with her role in rallying the entire Arab world together, in times of great need. Her role as the ‘voice of Egypt’ is well known. Not so well known may be her role as a philanthropist.

Umm Kulthum
Photo credit : Al bustan culture center, Philadelphia


We recently  attended an event honoring Umm Kulthum in Washington D.C. organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that organized an event as an homage to the great artist. Here are some interesting vignettes from the panel discussion that discussed not just her philanthropy, but also her life, her  career and the forces that shaped it.

  • Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl, who made the transition to Cairo, the big city, with a lot of grace
  • As she did this, she remained true to her roots, often referring to her humble origins
  • While maintaining a dignified presence, Umm Kulthum was a trendsetter of sorts – both in terms of style of singing and her own image
  • She contributed to the post-six day war period through her own salary  and her own wealth, towards the Egyptian state, which needed all the money, for its war efforts
  • She also encouraged women to donate jewelry, towards the war efforts
  • Her greatest contribution was to showcase Arab unity, when it was most needed, through Art
  • She was a businesswoman, diplomat and an artist.

As an exemplar of the value of giving oneself, and one’s time, Umm Kulthum demonstrates that an artist can make a difference. And it is perhaps fitting that she is celebrated, to this day; almost 40 years after her death, as one of the most important singers in Arabic language.

How to measure what matters : Nonprofit management 101

The nonprofit industry is obsessed with one thing : measurement. For those who do research or are involved in actual program delivery in the nonprofit sector, this desire to ‘measure spoons’ as Alnoor Ebrahim, a Harvard University professor calls it, can translate into a variety of things. There are a great many metrics that are often considered, when evaluating if a nonprofit is doing its job. For instance, people ask if the proportion of money spent on programs versus program administration (overheads) is ‘reasonable’. There are industry norms, suggesting that if an organization spends ‘too much’ then it is wasting people’s money. We base many of these arguments on the fact that they are the ‘rational’ thing to do. In a world, where philanthropy i.e., scientific way of doing charity has overtaken all other forms, this call for rationality and scientific ways of measuring this is but natural. But the really rational or ‘substantively rational’ question should be: what should we measure. And why? What impact does this have, in the long term.

Max Weber was one of the more prominent thinkers who write largely about rationality and how it is shaping our world. This short paper offers an in-depth discussion of the different types of rationalities that Weber expounded, upon. To summarize it, he posited there being four different types of rationalities: practical, theoretical, substantive and formal.

The ‘disenchantment’ of the world that leads to greater ‘rationalities’ of the formal, practical and theoretical type are evident in the field of philanthropy, as well. By this, I mean, there is a move away from ‘feeling’ or ‘reasoning based on an other-worldly’ sense of why we do charity or philanthropy. There is a growing sense that an act is justified or carried out towards an end. As Kalberg (1980) points out, the four types of social actions: affectual, traditional, value- rational, and means-end rational action are the core traits of ‘human’ actions and are outside of historical man.

Substantitive rationality ‘directly orders action into pattern.’ In seeking this form of rationality, one asks, not “what good is there at the end of the action” but rather, “should one even carry this out” and “what good will come out of this action,” in other words, this form of thinking is based on an ethical disposition of what is right and wrong.

Coming back to our initial discussion, if one were to use a substantive rational dispositions, one might : what is being measured and why? Does what we measure matter? And if so, how?

Ebrahim warns us in his piece Let’s be realistic about measuring impact, that “ It is crucial to identify when it makes sense to measure impacts and when it might be best to stick with outputs — especially when an organization’s control over results is limited, and causality remains poorly understood.”He suggests that simply repeating the mantra that measurement matters won’t get us there. There needs to be a long-term commitment to research and collaboration.


As Dan Pallotta argues in his book The Uncharitable that how we measure overheads is problematic. He gives the example of two soup kitchens: Kitchen A and Kitchen B. Assuming that Kitchen A spends only 10% of their revenues on overheads and Kitchen B spends about 30%. If this were all one knew, then one would judge Kitchen B harshly, saying they are producing a lot of waste. However, if one discovers that Kitchen A offers very bad quality soup, in poor conditions, while Kitchen B produces very high quality soup, at a great environment, then our perception of the services may change. This is a classic example of using substantive rationality, in making decisions.

There is a strong argument to be made for measuring only a few things, but asking more hard-nosed questions that get to the heart of why we are measuring a thing and at what point in time of the project life-cycle. Not to do so may actually lead to bad and hasty decision making.




How to fix the world – Use your head or heart?

Climate change. Refugee crisis. Unemployment.  Poverty.  Think of these issues or any other countless ‘wicked’ problems and if you are reasonable, like most people; one question sounds in your head: “Do we know all the facts?”. Do we know the ‘right’ approach to fix these issues?  While the ‘facts’ are available to address and solve most of these problems, often, what triumphs in the form of policies and actions taken are based not on technocratic solutions, but value laden opinions. You think policy makers use their head all the time? Think again.


In a discussion with a senior administrator of a major research university, last week; I brought up this question. To my query of whether most decision makers use the ‘head’ or ‘heart’, she gave me a very interesting answer. The person ( let’s call her Ms.A) said that most of the times, she has seen less of technocratic solutions and more of normative answers. Technocracy or ‘methods’ based solutions are offered very few times and often are not the ones chosen because such solutions can only take us so far.  How does one, for instance, deal with a million people showing up on your borders – when your own country is dealing with unemployment? Do you turn these desperate people and shove them in the sea, to drown? Or do you appeal to normative and moral claims, to tackle the issue, at hand? While there are multiple perspectives at hand, and those who want to justify their decisions on technocratic basis: we are undergoing a recession, OR ‘These people don’t fit in here’ can use any combination of excuses to make the decisions that reflect their values. But ultimately, all such decisions that take place in the public domain are at the end, reflective of our normative values. Even bureaucrats don’t blindly implement laws, but rather implement them based on their own interpretation of it. Dwight Waldo, one of the greatest contemporary thinkers and scholars of Public Administration showed this, in his work.

Even when we write ‘laws’ and ‘rules’ to do things, most decisions take place in a gray area, where  idealism meets pragmatism. It is important to be aware of this, as much as this may be against or for our interests. Sometimes, bad laws get passed because they reflect the values of those who make them and at other times, good laws get made and implemented. To lay claim to a pure ‘objectivity’ in matters of public discourse and action, is foolish. Perhaps, it is the heart that triumphs, most of the time. We just need to ensure that those who make laws have theirs, in the right place.


More Charity, less Philanthropy?

Do we need more ‘Charity’ (unorganized, personal giving) and less of ‘philanthropy’ (organized, scientific philanthropy)? While scholarship in the last 25 years of so indicates that there is a growing trend towards philanthropy, we are witnessing new arguments that what we need is really more ‘charity’. Bureaucratized and ‘scientific’ ways of giving don’t really work. Don’t believe me? Look at Give Directly, one of the leading proponents of charity. They do claim, however, to be doing ‘scientific’ philanthropy, but in reality, it is direct one-to-one giving, and per one definition, would count as ‘charity.’

Their argument is simple: give the poor money directly, unconditionally and they will figure out how to use it. To the best of their knowledge. There is some wisdom in that. This is not traditional charity or caritas, which focused on ‘character development.’ The assumption in this model of thinking of the individual was that the poor were poor because they were lazy, drunks or just stupid. This is the traditional Christian view of caritas, practiced in the settler colonies in the founding days of America or any traditional society. But there are other ways to imagine how the poor live and work. Poverty is a complex topic, and I will not attempt to analyze it here. But let’s just say that the poor have a bad reputation. Most poor people I know – and have dealt with – are decent, hardworking people. Many of them have not had opportunities to advance, in some cases, they have been dealt with heavy financial blows that keep them poor and in some cases, they are victims of structural issues. So, how does on help the poor, overcome their poverty? There are several possibilities – one is to fund ‘strucutral’ changes in the system and the other is to fund the individual directly.

When it comes to immediate impact and results that can manifest themselves, there is nothing faster than individual giving. While there are limitations (and many assumptions) on how this works, it is a model that seems to have attracted a lot of attention, especially given the criticism of large international NGOs that spend a lot of money, on overheads. As Paul Niehaus, President of GiveDirectly argues in this paper, the donors usually are concerned with ‘warm glow’ or don’t really care about learning what happened after the donations were made. The cost of such learning is high, he argues. “The well-intentioned benefactor has a limited desire to learn. He always prefers to avoid ex-post feedback as this constrains his beliefs.”  This means that the intermediaries – i.e., NGOs create a ‘need’ for the service and attract donations. This is not a case of misleading donors, but one of asymmetric information and also a different theory of change. GiveDirectly offers one model of giving that is direct, (seemingly) impactful and something worth a try. My mom did this for many decades and it seems to have worked – at least in the case of many of my cousins, who have better jobs, education, thanks to my mother’s ‘giving’ directly.

Renewing Islam through service?

Popular discourses about Islam don’t normally include the ‘service’ component of the faith. Even though Islam considers charity to be central part of faith. Charity is very broadly defined in Islamic terms – for instance, there are prophetic Hadith that suggest that even a kind word or smile to a stranger can be considered an act of charity. Given this, how are we to understand contemporary discourses of volunteering, service within the context of Islam. And how can we make sense of the service component of movements like the Hizmet movement (also known as the Gulen movement)? This was the central discussion that was part of Prof. Pim Valkenberg’s talk at the Rumi Forum, yesterday.

His book titled Renewing Islam by Service is an investigation into why the volunteers who serve people through the Hizmet movement do so. Seems like a simple question to answer, but the answers that he found surprised Valkenberg.

Valkenberg spoke of the impressive volunteering done by the Hizmet movement followers. He said “I quickly realized that this is called Hizmet movement (volunteers) rather than Gulen movement, because even though it was inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, he is really not the center of attention.” Mr.Gulen would rather people focus on the groups or cemaats of volunteers. Speaking of his own interest and how he came to study the movement in Europe, he said that his earlier interactions with students who were part of this movement were his first introduction.  This motive of working for the ‘pleasure of Allah’ was the interpretive key to understanding the work of the Gulen movement volunteers, he pointed out. He pointed out to the massive amount of charity that occurs during Ramadhan and also throughout the year, among Turks as an illustration of this charity. The current efforts of the Turkish government to rehabilitate the Syrians can be (broadly speaking) understood from this perspective of hospitality for the stranger.

While most narratives of revival or reform of Islam usually center on discussions of Islamism or political Islam, this perspective of looking at practices to reexamine Islam is an interesting one. It was refreshing to hear Valkenberg address the theological understanding of charity among the members of Gulen movement. Several scholars, religious preachers and reformers have addressed this question of reform. Among the more controversial manifestations of this ‘reform’ is Salafism, which seems to get a lot of bad press. While politics and religion get entangled in this debate, Volkenberg’s work suggests that it is possible to focus on the ethical and religious dimensions of these practices, while examining why these volunteers do what they do.

Their very public charity and manifestation of their values may seem controversial in a society such as the U.S., given the discomfort many have about talking about religion in public, but Volkenberg doesn’t see this as a problem. “As a Catholic, I also see that there is role for religion in addressing public issues, so I am all for movements like the Hizmet movement,” he said; arguing that perhaps Christians can learn something from such groups.

During my own visit to Turkey 2007, I saw large volunteer groups raising money for charity. I have also been consistently impressed with the scale as well as commitment to service among the Turkish diaspora I have encountered in India and the U.S. This book will certainly add to our understanding of the motivations, both religious and civic, among the Hizmet movement followers.

Photo credit : The Rumi Forum
Photo credit : The Rumi Forum

Should you give ‘Directly,’ for impact? Lessons from my mom’s charitable experiments

What is the best way to help people? Is it to let the market forces determine who should survive and who should sink, or should there be intervention from the state or other players? How should philanthropy be directed towards individuals and communities? These questions have neither clear-cut answers, nor a good way of being resolved. At least not anytime soon. While these questions come up in the context of discussion of both domestic welfare programs as well as international development, we often hear talk of ‘impact evaluation,’ and the need to see results.

photo credit : Give Directly
photo credit : Give Directly

So, how does one think of the ‘right ‘answer? Is it ‘Giving Directly,’ i.e., giving cash transfers to the poor, to let them decide what is best for them? Or is it a more targeted and  specific program – like school scholarships, loans to purchase cattle or agricultural equipment? I suggest that this debate is not so much about the right metrics or longer duration of measuring them, but rather about ‘charity’ and ‘philanthropy,’ and which one is more effective.

For the uninitiated, charity is any form of giving that aims to save or transform the individual and is short-term and driven by emotions or a ‘higher’ calling. Philanthropy, on the other hand, is a more ‘scientific,’ way of doing charity, which aims to change the social structures – education, healthcare or others – that make people poor. This ‘scientific’ movement emerged in the 19th century, with the mega-rich such as Rockefellers, Carnegie and Ford – who sought to use their enormous wealth to rectify some social ills. A similar thinking permeates the international development sector too, where there is an increasing demand for showing ‘results,’ for the money spent.

As those who study or practice International Development know, there is an almost obsessive urge on the part of organizations carrying out the ‘development,’ to prove that what they are doing is indeed working. Combined with this, there is also a huge amount of resistance to any form of international aid from certain political groups and ideologues in the West – the Republicans, for instance, who think that the U.S. is spending way too much on aid, than it should. There is an entire discourse of how countries should ‘help themselves,’ and not depend on the U.S. or others – whereas the U.S. spends about one percent of its annual budget on aid, globally. This too, serves as a ‘soft-power’ tool, rather than being wasteful. This helpful chart outlines how much the U.S. spent on aid in the year 2012.

So, American aid to the world is seen not so much as charity, but rather as ‘philanthropy,’ a scientific tool and a measured response to how the U.S. should be perceived by the world. Since WWII, as the only super power in the world, all eyes have been on the U.S., in terms of looking for how it would behave. With Marshall Plan, the U.S. set off a very successful model of development that has continued to be seen as a gold standard.

While there are other discourses of charity and philanthropy out there, that do not privilege or prefer ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact measurement,’ over other aspects of ‘why’ we give aid the meaning making processes that lie underneath these actions. Religious understandings of charity and philanthropy can be seen as the alternate to our obsessive quantification. While Give Directly has received a lot of praise for initial results and successes, critics point out that it is precisely that, the initial results from a trial experiment. Reality, they argue is far more complex and convoluted. And in this, they are partially, if not fully, right.

My (late) mother’s model of doing charity was surprisingly similar to that of Give directly. As a financially independent person (my mother worked as a high school teacher), she made many big and small decisions about money on her own – after taking care of her own family’s needs. This meant she identified the poor both within our extended family and also others, who came to her, for help. In her lifetime, I have seen my mother help at least four families in a substantial manner – to the extent that they are actually better off, in many ways., The kids are better educated, better fed and now, almost 20 or 25 years, after she started helping them, are in better jobs – because of their education or other opportunities – than they would have been otherwise. This, to me, is the power of giving directly. It works. But, with many caveats. Life is never as simple or linear as it seems!

In analyzing the effectiveness of giving directly, there is also the bigger problem of the ‘problematization of poverty,’ as Arturo Escobar has pointed out. This means that we tend to define, measure and position poverty in the third-world, sitting in the first world, not knowing and not fully appreciating how people understand poverty themselves, the strategies they use for survival and what means are available to them. This, I think is the bigger problem in this debate, as much as it is about charity and philanthropy. Until we find more details and more long-term results of what transpired with the families that Give Directly has helped, we must deal with the confusion that exists and the lack of ensuring clarity.