Not everything that can be Counted Counts, and Not Everything that Counts can be Counted: Notes from ARNOVA, 2013


I left Hartford, CT on Saturday after three grueling days of intense thinking and engagement at the 42nd Annual Association for Research on Non-profit and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), the Mecca for nonprofit theorists and practitioners. For over four decades the organization has been the meeting ground for anyone interested and engaged in this sphere. The three days of discussions, debates over coffee, lunch and dinners and intense panel discussions brought forth one key fact for me – data has finally trumped values as the epistemic framework for nonprofit management. And I am not convinced this is an entirely positive thing. Let me explain.

Photo Credit :  Sabith Khan
Photo Credit : Sabith Khan

IMG_3025 IMG_3028 IMG_3029 IMG_3040 IMG_3052 IMG_3056

Of the various sessions I participated in, and also chaired- I ended up chairing two sessions, one  on Understanding and Measuring Capacity in the Nonprofit Sector and the other being The Relationship between Performance Management and Nonprofit Outcomes. One of the discussants in the first panel, Celopatra Grizzle, from Rugters University pointed out that donors don’t care about efficiency of the projects/ organizations that they donate to, but rather its legitimacy. This goes against the utility maximization theory that is used by Economists and those in the profession, who are interested in measuring the effectiveness of philanthropy. Chongmyoung Lee discussed his project of measuring outcomes in nonprofits and the perennial challenge of doing the same.

Lilly School of Philanthropy, an institution that is at the forefront of research in the field of Philanthropy was extremely well represented. Almost its entire research team was here and having worked with them this summer, I was personally excited to see that they turned out in great numbers. Dr.Amy Thayer presented her research on philanthropy and meaning making practices in education among K-12 students. One of the findings of this pilot study is that participation in philanthropic education programs enhances emotional maturity and also participation in these programs is linked to grants being available. This is not surprising, given similar results from a longer program, that has been ongoing at Center for Arab American Philanthropy, part of ACCESS, in Dearbon, MI; targeting a similar demographic among Arab American Youth, through the Teen Grant Making Initiative ( TGI).

Yuan Tian, a doctoral student at the Lilly School of Philanthropy presented her research on International Giving in the High Net Worth givers category. This has been compiled and is documented on an on-going basis through the Million Dollar List, a public list of gifts over a Million dollars made by individuals, in the U.S. She pointed out several interesting findings from the list, showcasing trends in giving and also some unique insights including that the highest donations to the international sector went to Healthcare, Education and Arts. These insights are helpful for both planners and those working in the international affairs sector.

Among the sessions dealing with values, religion and faith – I managed to attend two. One was a meeting of the Values in Philanthropy group, that sought to understand and research the “dark” and the “light” side of Philanthropy, including the activities that are not often brought up , i.e, funding of illegal or anti-social activities through the institution of philanthropy. It could be either the Church support of the Irish Republican Army or support by certain faith based groups in helping Al-Qaeda. The group has decided to further this approach and is seeking inputs on these issues, as they plan the agenda for the upcoming year. I was part of this lively discussion and contributed a few insights.

Finally, I managed to hear Shariq Siddiqui, the Executive Director of ARNOVA and Dr. Mounah Abdel Samad of San Diego State University, who spoke about Civil Society Legislative Advocacy in Morocco, based on his survey of legislators in the country and how much they trusted civil society organizations. Siddiqui spoke about his research on the American Muslim giving experience and this was captured through the example of Islamic Society of North America, the national representative body of American Muslims.

Overall, this was a vibrant atmosphere, and the conference itself addressed philanthropy, voluntary action from various perspectives – both quantitative and qualitative. There were researchers focusing on all sorts of issues – domestic, international, big and small. But one could not miss the heavy focus on quantitative methods and the frameworks leaning towards this mode of enquiry. Amidst the hundreds of presentations, a handful were purely qualitative studies and perhaps this is an indication that researchers are not asking the often harder questions of ‘why’ certain things are the way they are, and are focusing more ‘what’ and ‘how’, that are more easily answered through regression models and quantitative analysis.


In God’s Land: Triumph of faith over facts

Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s In God’s Land is a dystopian tale set in Tamilnadu, South India. While it brings together history, discourse of development and progress, there is an underlying tale that is not visible, even after watching the film in its entirety. This is one of the “land grab mafia” involving the local Vanamamalai Temple authorities, the Tamilnadu government and of course, the Non-resident Indian investors in the U.S. I watched this movie last week, at Virginia Tech, where Kumar came over to screen his film and talk to students and faculty who were interested in the ideas that he had to share, through this film. The film is based on the village near Tirunalveli district and is a tale that made me question the untold stories of ‘development’ that one reads or often, does not read about.

Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech
Pankaj Rishi Kumar with Dr. Peter Schmitthenner, Dept. of Religion and Culture, Virginia Tech

The dominant narrative in In God’s Land is about the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that is due to come up in the village, that’d occupy over 2500 acres of land. “I was passing by this area, when I saw this sign for the SEZ, and was intrigued. That is what started the project,” pointed out Kumar, about the serendipitous way in which he came across the project and hence his film. The villagers in the film are active participants and the story is narrated partly from their perspective, with Tamil as the language of the film. The film is very visual, and the sound of the local speaking in local Tamil dialect brought back memories of my own friends, who speak with a tone and speed that is all too befuddling, even for a Kannada speaker, such as me. The villagers also seem to be ones with agency and the will to defy the local authorities, mainly the temple chiefs who seemed to have appropriated the village property. A court case against the temple brought by the villagers decades ago is still pending, but it seems to have created animosity and also downright ‘oppression’ of villagers by the temple authorities. One of the village chief speaks of being physically harassed and beaten up for standing up against the temple’s illegitimate takeover. To complicate matters further, the temple authorities sell the land to the government, to develop the SEZ and this creates a situation, where their arable agricultural land is classified as “dry land,” up for “development.” And this is just one of the several absurdities in this situation that the film showcases.


The tensions between the villagers and temple are not only about the project, but involve the caste-dynamics, going back to centuries, involving economic issues of patronage and landless agricultural farmers. The villagers invent a new god, Sudalai Swami to cater to their spiritual needs, once they are barred from entering the big temple. They find creative ways to battle this imbalance of power. While the local priest couches his move to sell the village land in the notion of “doing good for the community and their welfare,” it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine how dispossessing hundreds of families and taking away their livelihood would constitute “welfare.” The landless farmers, who for decades have paid rent to farm on this land, are not technically without this piece of land, that sustains not only their lives, but also gives them a sense of purpose and agency- as the film demonstrates. There is a deep-rooted love of the land among these people, one that defies rationality. This seemed to be an attachment that is not only emotional, but partly mythical, given the strange way in which the land was originally handed over to them by the local ruler – the Nizam, more than a hundred years ago.

Finally, this film is also a call for examining the politics of development, as it stands today. As Arturo Escobar, the Colombian Post-development scholar and thinker would say, we need “undevelopment” rather than development, if we are to look out for the interests of these people. If I am sounding too Marxist for your taste, I suggest watching the film and also reading a bit of Escobar. A good reality check for those who are enamored of the development discourse, and see it as a totally necessary and not contingent fact of life. While not aiming to be an “activist” film, the film does raise some important questions that everyone involved should think through. While development does call for certain sacrifices on everyone’s part, the bigger question that one should ask, and I think Kumar is hinting at this is: Do we need this sort of development at all? And finally, who gains and who loses? Is all of it worth it, in the end?

The resilience of the landless farmers is startling, so is their humanity. Their collective will and character seems to shine through in the film, which, in an unexpected way makes them the heroes of the film. Between giving up hope, fighting the system and keeping their faith in a god they invented, the film shows them for what they are: Human, all too human.

“As researchers, you are all artists, not just reporters of facts” – Dr. John Cameron, ISS

Photo credit :Sabith Khan
Photo credit :Sabith Khan

IMG_2750 IMG_2757I presented my paper on Arab Diaspora giving at the 11th development dialogue, hosted by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam on October 10, 11 in The Hague, Netherlands. The student conference brought together 120 young researchers from across the world and despite the numbers, two regions of the world were missing, rather conspicuously – North America and the Middle East. Given this, it was quite ironic that I represented North America, while presenting my paper on Arab diaspora giving. This confirmed what Joseph Stiglitz, the eminent economist shared a few months ago, at a speech at The World Bank that the U.S. is increasingly being isolated on the world scene, when it comes to issues of development.

The issues under discussion during the two day conference spanned the entire globe – from indigenous rights to community development and environmental issues. The thoughtful presentations from the young researchers raised more questions than they answered and most of the participants seemed to agree that this was the right approach – in keeping ideas open, and exploring them deeply rather than trying to get closure, too soon and reaching hasty decisions or conclusions that may not be entirely right.

During the keynote speech, Dr. John Cameron, Associate Professor at ISS pointed out that researchers are like artists, who produce an image of reality, and one that they imagine. “You are all artists, not just reporters. Your imagination is always at play during the process of knowledge creation and one must be aware of this.” He pointed out. He spoke of the responsibility of socially responsible scholarship and reflexivity. Bringing in his own background, he pointed out how his experience of witnessing the racism against Jamaican migrant workers in his native U.K in the early 1960s’ formed his mind about the need to fight these attitudes and ultimately led him on the path to scholarship in the area. Using the metaphor of bridges, he spoke of the three levels in research: epistemological, structural and human agency. He spoke passionately about the need to look at data critically and warned that if this has not produced surprises, then perhaps we haven’t carried out real research.


Student reflections

While I could not attend all of the presentations, given that there were many parallel sessions, I did participate in a few. Here are a few key points from some of the presentations made during the conference.

Indigenous rights in Indonesia : Cypri Jehan, from Indonesia spoke about the land-grabbing issue in Papua. He spoke poignantly about the government’s efforts to take over land and colonize large parts of the indigenous people’s land. This, he framed in the context of governmentality and hegemonic discourse of “development.” “Whose development are we looking at?” he asked, pointing to the hypocrisy in much of the debate surrounding development.


Fisheries management and community based fisheries in Cambodia: Soy Sok spoke about how efforts to form fishing cooperatives in Cambodia have failed in many cases. This, he explained, is because the notion of a ‘community’ is very limited in the country. “Every family is an island” he pointed out, as he outlined the strategies used by certain groups to encourage formation of a social unit larger than the family, in an effort to facilitate and encourage growth in fisheries. He pointed out that while there is the notion of offering a ‘helping hand’ during funerals or other calamities, most of the time, Cambodians tend to think of the family as their primary unit of society.

Communal councils in Venezuela: Juan Carlos Trivino from Spain spoke about the communal councils in Venezuela and their approach to democratization. His framework was participatory democracy. His work involves proposing indicators to evaluate and analyze invited spaces of participation in a state-led model of participation. He proposed four indicators that would measure: 1. Discourse 2. Mobility of community 3. Design of community and 4. Participation of the community.

                While the themes, topics and ideas presented during the two days were all very different, the unifying theme was one of applied research and the need to question the status quo. The notion that we are a communicative species and one that is also relational came up time and again. The need for social justice, equality of opportunity and reflexivity on the role of the researchers was also stressed.

Teaching kids about Philanthropy – Talk about it or show how it is done?


On a recent trip to Dearborn, MI, this summer, I witnessed what could be considered the only model of teaching philanthropy for young Arab Americans. I met the team from the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), an organizational affiliate of  ACCESS in Dearborn, MI, the largest Arab-American philanthropic organization in the country. Titled Teen grant-making Initiative, this initiative aims to teach high school students how effective grant-making happens, by giving them access to grant-funds. “We give a group of high-school students $5000 and expert advice, along with ongoing mentoring, through the academic year, to ensure that they learn not only the skills in identifying, developing a relationship with potential grantees, but also skills in evaluation,” one of the office bearers of ACCESS pointed out. She further mentioned that this has become one of the most exciting and sought-after projects for youth, attracting praise, attention and funding from parents, foundations and the local beneficiaries.

Source: Lilly School,IUPUI Website.
Source: Lilly School,IUPUI Website.

In this brief article, I will look at the TGI and other recent research on giving, to shed light about teaching youngsters about giving, through doing – a hands-on approach that seems to be working rather well. This learning by doing methodology is proving effective and is drawing the attention of other schools and foundations that are interesting in implementing it. Against this is the notion of combining doing with talking about philanthropy is more effective.

A recent report titled Women Give 2013, produced by the Lilly School of Philanthropy points out that talking to kids is more effective than just showing kids how to do philanthropy. As the Website points out : “The IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy study is among the first to analyze and compare what parents can do to encourage their children’s charitable behavior. It examines two approaches through which parents teach children about charitable giving: (1) talking to children about charitable giving and (2) role-modeling charitable giving. For this study, role-modeling is defined as parents giving to charity. The study also investigates whether girls and boys participate differently in giving and volunteering, expanding the Women’s Philanthropy Institute’s exploration of how gender affects charitable giving. It follows the same 903 children over two time periods, 2002-2003 and 2007-2008.”

My own research examines modernity and its impact on giving behavior among Arab Americans and American Muslims. I am deeply interested in learning how giving and philanthropic norms are understood and also passed on from one generation to another, in Western societies. What is the role of technology, how are family norms influencing giving and in what shape/form are religious and secular values in giving being re-imagined, are some of the questions that interest me.

The Arab American and American Muslim giving[i] landscape is quite rich. In particular, involvement by youth in giving is on the rise, with Muslim Student Associations, nonprofit volunteering and other forms of civic engagement providing the outlets and opportunities for youth to participate, give back to their communities (however broadly defined). This is evident when one takes a cursory look at organizations such as Muslims without Borders, Arab American Institute, Islamic Relief, and Zakatability.

Teaching moments all around us

Islamic Relief’s Vice President for Fundraising, Anwar Khan told me a few months ago that they try to teach young children about the value of giving by organizing informal “giving circles” in schools and also encourage them to organize fundraisers etc. “Even though they raise $2000 or so, this is an investment in their education, in terms of them becoming aware, responsible and caring individuals. The value of teaching them these core Islamic principles is in itself worth all the investment in time and talent,” he added.

Finally, one needs to remember that teaching by words and practice may be the most effective way to teach a value. As the Lilly School survey sums it up, nicely: “That finding holds true regardless of the child’s sex, age, race, and family income. Children whose parents talk to them about giving are 20 percent more likely to give to charity than children whose parents do not discuss giving with them. Many of the Arab-American children and youth I have interacted with seem to have an environment, where values of giving are spoken of, quite often.

Based on these new findings and also the ‘traditionally’ held wisdom, perhaps educators are better off both designing their curricula by talking about charity and philanthropy and being kind in real life – showing caritas and modelling it in their behavior- a difficult undertaking, indeed.


[i] One needs to distinguish between Arab Americans (not all of who are Muslims, in fact a majority of them are Christians) and American Muslims. Often, these are conflated, and I would like to point this out, upfront. The estimates for number of Arab Americans is in the range of about 6 million, roughly, the same as American Muslims.





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





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

Interfaith work and Philanthropy – a faith-based revolution or a pragmatic innovation?

“ We did not hear the term “Abrahamic faiths,” until about ten years ago. This term is not only a great leap forward in terms of interfaith work, but also a radical shift in how people are looking at each other’s faith,” said William Enright, the Director of Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, Indianapolis. He said this when we were discussing the state of interfaith work in the U.S and the implications on philanthropy, a few weeks ago, when I was at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. While the interfaith movement has a long history in this country and has seen many ups and downs, I will briefly discuss how religious diversity in the U.S is impacting it. I will briefly look at the opportunities it presents in the field of philanthropy.

Source: Case Western Reserve University.
Source: Case Western Reserve University.

My first significant exposure to the interfaith movement in Washington D.C was when I attended a Jum’ah (Friday)prayer conducted in an Episcopal church in downtown D.C, about two years ago. Ever since, each time I visit the city on a Friday, this is where I attend Friday prayers. While the notion of praying in a church may seem anathema to many Muslims across the world, this seems like the most normal thing in the U.S, where space constraints and financial restrictions are forcing small Muslim congregations to creatively reach out to other faith based groups and create spaces where they can pray, conduct meetings etc. This is not the only instance where prayers are held in a Church. I personally know of two other venues in the greater D.C area where this is the norm. What this points out is also the growing recognition and accommodation of Muslims by Christian and Jewish groups, who see the need to accommodate Muslims and their needs. This is also a good illustration of the concept of “Abrahamic faiths,” that Mr.Enright pointed out. While not new radically new as a concept (the notion of Abrahamic faiths is centuries old) but its usage and acceptance is rather new.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University professor of Religion takes a close, hard look at the changing religious landscape in the U.S, and analyzes its impact on the American population. Using in-depth interviews with religious leaders, lay-men and also people from the “new religions” in the American landscape i.e., Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, the book provides a compelling argument for greater inter-faith dialogue and also a call for Christians to be more pro-active in learning and accommodating these religious groups. The key argument in the book is that the increasing religious diversity is presenting challenges to the American social fabric and we must pay close attention to this issue. There is a call for greater interaction and also work between religious groups, though a stronger focus has been put on Christian groups to do more, in terms of inter-faith work.

He calls for reflective pluralism, one in which there is adequate thinking and consideration given to what one believes in, and where one’s beliefs are coming from. He points out rightly, that for exclusivists to ignore all other religions and to continue to live in a bubble will be hard in the future, as the country becomes increasingly diverse.

Shoulder to Shoulder and Interfaith Youth Core

Two organizations that seem to be at the cutting edge of interfaith work in the U.S are Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith alliance of over 20 national organizations, across the country from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faithbased groups that have come together to defend each other’s rights. This is exemplified in their stance against Islamophobia, and other racially motivated campaigns by radical groups in the country. Their mission is: “Sharing ideas for starting community initiatives to address anti-Muslim sentiment by maintaining an archive of past events. Offering resources materials in a comprehensive online library that includes worship materials, educational curricula, videos, and more.”


Interfaith Youth Core is another group that is redefining how interfaith work is being carried out. It is reaching out to Millennials across college campuses to form a coalition of groups that educate each other and also organize along faith lines to transform the religious context of the country. Eboo Patel, the founder of the group exemplifies this struggle, and he illustrates that in his autobiographical book Acts of Faith.


Challenges: One exclusive path or many ways to reach truth?

Exceptionalism is one of the biggest challenges facing America in the realm of interfaith dialogue. While some denominations tend to be exclusive, others take a more ecumenical perspective when it comes to reaching ultimate reality, or religious truth. Wuthnow points this out by saying : ““ Among the thorniest questions that religious diversity poses for all the major religious traditions is whether or not they can sustain their historic claims to being uniquely true or at least better than other traditions in relating people to the sacred. Much of the reason for believers taking an active part in particular denominations or congregations has been the conviction that God could be found best in one theological location rather than in the other”.

What this calls for, then, is not only willingness to dialogue and to be open to ideas, but also to be secure enough in one’s faith that this first step becomes possible. Most often, insecurity and lack of initiative hampers most efforts. A theme that Wuthnow brings up more than once is that of the majority community accommodating the minorities. This is not only a pragmatic position, but one that resonates with the ethos of building a civil society. And if the interfaith projects mentioned above are any indication, this seems to be happening, as we speak.

There is reason to be positive, though more efforts need to be made in this direction, Wuthnow adds. One of the most eclectic experiences I have had in Washington D.C (when I lived there) was attending Jum’ah at a church in downtown, walking out a few blocks and eating Matzo Ball soup at a Jewish restaurant. It was my little pilgrimage to honor all three faiths, though arguably the Matzo Ball soup is only culturally a Jewish delicacy. The diehard fundamentalists may cringe at this thought, but this is the reality of Islam in the U.S and also reflects the pragmatism that followers of each religion demonstrate. This, I believe will define the future of interfaith work in the U.S.