How to make academic work relevant?

It costs about a million dollars to produce a Ph.D, in the U.S.

One of my mentors shared this interesting fact, as I was about to finish my doctoral education. While I was trying to finish a decently-written dissertation, this fact kept nagging me. I had to justify that million dollar investment made on me by the state of Virginia ( I went to Virginia Tech, a public school) for my Ph.D. At the same time, I had this nagging suspicion in my mind that academic research, for the most part is not perceived as being relevant outside the confines of academe. Is this a problem that needs fixing? For sure. As demands to increase the ‘efficiency’ of dollars put into the higher education system grow, this question of relevance will become more salient.

Georgetown Uni
Georgetown University, photo credit :

In the market-place of ideas, academic research  (especially in the Social Sciences) stands out as the effete snob. Unless one works in applied research – i.e., STEM or Economics, most people don’t understand what we social scientists do, or how we do it. And sadly, most don’t care.

Should this be the case? How can we change this? How can I justify that million dollar investment, made on me, as a scholar?  I think about this regularly – and have been mulling this over – even as I work on an academic book and two other articles.

Bent Flyvbjerg (2001), a social scientist offers some answers. Here are his key arguments:

  • We must stop pretending that social sciences can emulate the success of natural sciences, in producing ‘predictive theories’.This is not the strength or even focus of social sciences and we must accept that, as a given
  • Social scientists must produce research that matters ‘to groups in the local, national and global communities in which we live, and we must do it in ways that matter; we
    must focus on issues of context, values and power, as advocated by great social scientists from Aristotle and Machiavelli to Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.’
  • Finally, he says we must establish greater dialogic capacity – i.e., communicate our results to the public and solicit feedback and incorporate it in our work. In other words, we must become ‘public scholars’ rather than be cloistered in offices on unreachable university campuses

In other words, what Flyvbjerg is saying is that academics must produce work that speaks to the condition of people around us, it addresses their daily concerns as well as listens to them, carefully and respectfully. To this, I would add a final point : Write in ways that are understandable to the vast majority of non-academics and show genuine empathy for the lives of those around us. Most academics tend to forget this, and write for an academic audience – which is usually those who are peer-reviewing their publications ( ranging from four to five people). ‘The rest of the world be damned’, is their attitude.

If we start to do this, perhaps our work may be taken more seriously by a non-academic audience. And perhaps it may even be relevant to those not within our own narrow disciplines.



Flyvbjerg(2001) Making Social science matter, why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again.  

Is Philanthropy losing its ‘meaning’?

There are various conceptions of philanthropy in American society. While some view philanthropy as a religious obligation, giving their time, treasure and talent to the Church or religious institution, others view it as a ‘social relation’, one that binds people to one another says Paul Schervish, in his paper  Philanthropy as a Social Relation. Increasingly, this aspect of philanthropy is giving way to giving to organizations, anonymous funds and institutions that ‘manage’ our money for the ‘best possible’ social outcome. Is this leading to a de-personalization of charity and are the ‘meaning’ and ‘values’ of giving being lost? Are we witnessing more ‘consumption philanthropy’ and other forms of philanthropy, which is antithetical to how most religious and cultural traditions conceptualize them? Is this problematic or is it a natural part of the evolution of the field itself?


This is particularly important for my study, as I am looking at the role that faith-based organizations play, as mediators of the discourses of giving, in a context, not of their own making. As Schervish further argues, the key relation in philanthropy that needs to be understood is one that of the donor and recipient. This can lead to a better match between resources and needs of donors, he says. But how does one negotiate this relationship when an organization mediates as a go-in-between the donor and recipient? This and related concerns are some of the newer challenges that have cropped up with the growth of organized ‘philanthropy’.

Still others conceptualize philanthropy as not necessarily positive, but rather as a remnant of colonial mindset, that seeks to ‘dominate’ the weak and oppressed, in the guise of helping them ( Wagner, 2001). In this conceptualization, philanthropy is oppressive and takes on a hegemonic role, something not very pleasant for the donor or recipient. These competing conceptions of philanthropy are interesting in and of themselves and lend themselves to analysis. But my interest in them derives from how they are being articulated in various forms in contemporary society.

Focus on values or metrics?

While much of scholarly work and research is focused on donors and how to attract them, show them that their money is bearing fruit. But what about the recipients? How do we ensure that their dignity is protected and they are also recognized for proper use of the money, given to them. The recipients could be individuals, organizations or foundations.

Peter Frumkin, Professor at University of Pennsylvania on the other hand argues that it is possible to merge the scientific with the aesthetic or related dimensions of giving. He draws a distinction between the ‘art’ of giving and the ‘science’ of it. In his book Strategic Giving, Frumkin concludes with how the art of philanthropy allows donors to express their private values and convictions while the science of philanthropy pushes the field toward greater levels of instrumental effectiveness. As he says in his book : “One of the main arguments of this book is that often philanthropy works best and strategy is most compelling when the donor brings its value set and assumptions to bear on the process of setting forth a philanthropic direction. Without this critical differentiating ingredient, giving can never reach its true potential. When individuals draw upon their life experience and their reservoir of commitment and caring, however philanthropy can take on problems that government and community stakeholders may not yet recognize or prioritize.” While this does mean that philanthropy can become very ‘personalized’ and extremely undemocratic, it also means that once there is a personal stake in an issue, the donor will invest more of his/her time into it. This could also lead to a related criticism of philanthropy that it makes giving very undemocratic and unequal.

Donor advised funds, Giving Circles, Philanthrocapitalism – these are some of the ‘newer’ versions of how philanthropy is being conceptualized and marketed. For the uninitiated, these are various ways that money is pooled and then used for ‘common good’. While financially, these may be smart and ‘efficient’ ways to conduct philanthropy, there is also a fear that the core of philanthropy is being lost here. I would argue that the ‘values’ part of philanthropy is being increasingly side-stepped and this is not a good trend. While making this normative claim, I realize that there is a greater need for accountability that has become the norm in this field of study and practice.

This tension between ‘values’ of philanthropy and the ‘science’ of doing it right is yet to be resolved. While there is the danger of ‘death by data’ in this field, as increasingly, people are asking for more ‘evaluations’ and ‘results’ of projects and not asking whether the mission objectives are being met, even if people don’t ‘deliver’ results in the short-term. Peter Frumkin argues that this is an important aspect and one that we should not lose sight of. In Strategic Giving, he advocates giving from a values perspective, aligning the donors’ values with the projects or organization that one wants to support, so there is greater coherence in giving. His advice is to look at the following five factors, before planning one’s giving strategy:

1. They must declare the value to be produced through their giving

2. Donors need to define the type and scope of program that will be supported

3. Donors have to select a vehicle or structure through which they will conduct their giving

4. Donors must find a giving style and profile level that is satisfying and productive

5. They need to settle on a time frame that will guide their giving

As Frumkin clarifies: “These five constitute the “philanthropic prism,” and are aimed at moving the field of philanthropy towards a more strategic approach. By thinking through how best to present donors with giving opportunities, that connect to the core of their strategic concerns, nonprofits can improve the quality and sophistication of their grant making appeals.” While insightful and well-articulated, the question is, how many High net worth donors or even small donors think of these factors? Will they stop their ego from getting in their way, as they plan their donations? What about external pressures to give that may contradict their values? All of these questions come up as one examines this advise.

Finally, as Schervish and Ostrander point out, the claims that philanthropy makes towards people are normative and not coercive, or transactional. A politician may stand for election and promise certain changes or reforms, in exchange for your vote and this makes it a purely transactional exercise, while a nonprofit leader cannot do the same, they add. This makes the sector unique in a sense of being both bound by certain norms and also free from the sort of ‘effective’ results that it is supposed to generate. The results that philanthropy generates are ‘affective’ instead of ‘effective’ they add. This may be hard claim to sustain, in a tough economy and constricted budgets. While the ‘values’ and ‘science’ could be a false dichotomy, and one that we can overcome, with some thoughtful planning and care, it is imperative that neither dimension is ignored. Being conscious of both aspects of philanthropy may well be critical for keeping the sector relevant and vibrant.

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

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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.


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.

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

” Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie,” – John Godfrey.

John Godfrey is a PhD Candidate at the Swinburne University of Technology, Australia, exploring High Net Worth Philanthropy in India. In this short interview, he explains how he got interested in studying Philanthropy in India, its dimensions – social, cultural and religions and how, if at all, it differs from Western notions of giving.


John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.
John Godfrey. Photo provided by Mr.Godfrey.

1. Please tell us a bit about how you got interested in High-net worth giving in India? 

 Like many Protestants I knew very little about traditions of giving other than the one in which I grew up – church collections on Sundays, occasional street day appeals and organized charity appeals for the likes of Oxfam, Red Cross and Save the Children.  Somehow I formed the impression that it was the West alone that provided relief and succour to the developing world.  I never read or heard discussions about indigenous traditions of charity or philanthropy other than my own – even in my early days as a professional fundraiser.

Around 2005 I was working for a firm of international fundraising consultants and through them met Major General Surat Sandhu, who had recently retired from Help Age India to become a fundraising consultant. Sometime later, knowing that I was visiting India, he invited me to give a workshop to some Indian fundraisers. For the first time I began to understand a little bit about NGOs and philanthropy in India. As time went on I became more a more struck by the scale and prevalence of philanthropy in India.

More recently when I was considering the focus of my research for the Ph.D. I wanted to do.  I was reading the extensive press coverage generated by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s first visit to India to promote the Giving Pledge. There was a great deal of discussion by Indian HNWIs themselves about their practice of philanthropy. I had never seen that in the West!  It seemed to me here was a fruitful area for further research.  Especially, of course,  because Ph.D. research is supposed to cover topics that haven’t been researched before. The sad fact is there has been almost no academic research on any aspect of Indian philanthropy.

 2. What is your background and experience ?

 As I mentioned briefly above, I am a fundraising consultant. I also train fundraisers. I began my career as an actor, then an arts administrator, then I became a fundraiser first in the arts and then in higher education – universities.

3. What have you uncovered so far about giving behaviors in the subcontinent?

 It’s hard to give a simple answer. The subcontinent is a complex mix of religions, castes, ethnic traditions, geographies, histories, politics and social class. All of these are reflected in one way or another in giving behaviors. However once again I would like to reiterate that there is, or are, strong traditions of giving.

4. Any surprises?

 No surprises other than the initial surprise that philanthropy and giving are so much a part of Indian culture.

 5. What is unique about Indian philanthropy, as compared to western notions of giving?

 I wouldn’t necessary claim that there is anything unique about Indian philanthropy, in comparison to Western philanthropy. One thing to remember is that Western philanthropy grew from traditions that were introduced from the East. The first endowed universities and hospitals in Europe were the result of Medieval Knights returning from the Islamic territories of the Middle East where they had been introduced to the tradition of Islamic philanthropy and waqf.

US philanthropy is an infant in comparison to the traditions of the Middle East and Asia having been imported from Europe in the 19th century.

Jamsetji Tata established his philanthropic foundation in India before even that of Carnegie.


6. Noam Chomsky said recently in an interview that most Indians are indifferent to others’ suffering? Do you agree with this, purely from a philanthropic perspective

I have great respect for Noam Chomsky as an intellectual and a great liberal. I don’t think the reported comment was particularly profound. He made an interesting observation about the reaction of someone else – Aruna Roy. And he tried to generalize it through his own sensibilities. I think he missed the mark and I hope that it isn’t held against him.

 7. What is the role of philanthropy in a society such as India? How does this intersect with the state’s responsibility? 

 There is much debate about the role of philanthropy in societies around the world. The philanthropic sector is sometimes called the third sector to distinguish it from the state sector and the business sector. There are some things that can be achieved by philanthropy which cannot be achieved either through the state or by business. There are also some things that can be done in partnerships of all three – the state, business and philanthropy. Of these, I suppose it would be fair to say, philanthropy has the most freedom to innovate and take risks. Certainly this appears to be a growing trend both in the West and in India.


8. How do you foresee the understanding of philanthropy growing in India, going beyond Corporate Social Responsibility? The field is pretty nascent in India, is that right? 

 As I have said already philanthropy is far from nascent in India. In fact, in comparison, it is American philanthropy that is nascent! There is much confusion about corporate social responsibility not just in India but all over the world. Corporate social responsibility and corporate philanthropy are not synonymous. In India the debate about corporate social responsibility has been renewed as a result of the government making it mandatory for some companies. However the definition of corporate social responsibility is still far from determined.

You may be alluding to the fact that there is a strong tradition of philanthropy within the business classes and industrial dynasties of India. There is in the public mind some confusion between corporate philanthropy, family philanthropy and CSR because of this. Similar confusion may even exist amongst those business families themselves.


9. Any concluding thoughts.

 A strong motivation for my undertaking this research into philanthropy in India is a belief that the world should recognize that there is much more to philanthropy than there is contained in Western philanthropy. Until now, 90% if not more, of the research that has been published has been published either by American or British scholars about American, British and Western European philanthropy. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Middle East and was introduced to Islamic philanthropy. That began my curiosity and interest into other traditions of philanthropy.

India is remarkable because within one country there are so many different traditions. I think the world has a lot to learn from India.

Challenges to Studying Muslim Philanthropy in America – Conversations in Philanthropy # 4

As a student of philanthropy and specifically, Muslim/ Arab American giving, I am constantly struck by how little information there is, on the various aspects of giving. Despite a formidable 1400 years of history, there are not even 14 books that deal with the social, cultural, economic aspects of giving among Muslims, in a scholarly manner. This is shocking, but also offers an unparalleled opportunity to understand not only Muslim societies, but also the changes undergoing in some of the norms of giving, the aesthetic as well as pragmatic dimensions when it comes to giving and philanthropy. I also point out that in Western societies in particular, giving behavior among Muslims/ Arabs can help us understand  some of the tensions, trends in reformation in giving behavior, civic-engagement that are taking place, albeit slowly. 

Pic from:
Pic from:

                There are a few challenges to studying this phenomenon. The key ones being:

  1. Lack of baseline data
  2. Competing theories about giving, with very little data to back it up
  3. Adverse policy/ media environment
  4. Mis-information campaign by quasi-academics
  5. Lack of credible scholarship

Let’s look at each one, in brief to understand what is going on:

  1. Lack of baseline data: There is very little actual data, on which analysis can be done. By this I mean either quantitative studies that are conducted to document the giving patterns, priorities of concerns of American Muslims/ Arab Americans. The only nationally representative dataset that exists is at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, where I am interning this summer. This Center on philanthropy Panel Study data (COPPS) dataset is derived from a larger Panel Study on Income Data, maintained by the University of Michigan since the late 1950s. However, the biggest challenge with this data is the small sample size of Muslim families. Nevertheless, this is longitudinal data and has its uses!
  2. Competing theories about giving, with very little data to back it up – Given this context, there are several competing explanations about how, why and to what American Muslims/Arab Americans give money to. This is also a sensitive issue, that people are not comfortable talking about, given both the aesthetic and other concerns that this brings up.
  3. Adverse policy/ media environment – Especially post 9/11, several charities came under investigation and about six Muslim charities were shut down, in a campaign that has been denounced by civil liberty groups such as ACLU etc. This has had a profound impact on the giving patterns, some scholars and practitioners claim.

Looking at the giving data of the three largest Muslim charities in the U.S points to the opposite fact that in fact, giving to them increased several times, post these measures by the Department of Treasury. Also, media has not been very thorough in reporting/ writing about issues. Ignorance, bias against Muslims and Muslim charities reflects in much of the media coverage that occurs and there is a constant “othering” of NGOs’ and individuals that are engaged in this field.

4. Mis-information campaign by quasi-academics – There has been a concerted campaign by right-wing and extremely ideological groups such as the Clarion Project, which have gone on a rampage producing reports, quasi-academic publications that have linked every known Muslim organization with the Muslim brotherhood. While many serious academics do not accept this, this trend has unfortunately become part of the popular discourse in America. The Center for American Progress has highlighted this in their report Fear Inc. that came out about a year ago

5.Lack of credible scholarship – This is linked to all the points above. Unfortunately, not much scholarly attention has been paid to understanding how institutional building, humanitarian development and innovations in the field of giving, philanthropy is occurring in the Arab American/American Muslim groups.fundraisers for Syria scavenger hunt

While Zakat and Sadaqa remain one of the core tenets of the faith, not much attention has been paid to these aspects by academics or policy professionals. It is high time this happens, in a non-ideological and objective manner as the practices of American Muslims have the potential to impact development both domestically in the U.S and internationally as well. With increased awareness of disasters, growing cutbacks on federal and domestic agencies of social service, it is falling upon faith-based groups to do their part. And unless some of the negative stereotypes about Muslim charities are dispelled, their equal and full participation may not be possible. Don’t believe me? Just look at this article by IRIN, the United Nations newswire that points out to the roughly $ 200 billion to $ 1 trillion that are spent in Zakat money globally.