This is the first in a four-week series about Lake Institute on Faith & Giving’s course offering, Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF). Each week will be a different perspective on this course and the way it has impacted individuals and religious organizations.
By Rafia Khader
As a new program manager at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, I had an opportunity last month to observe a portion of Lake Institute’s Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) seminar held at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
I happened to observe Day 2 of the seminar, which is devoted to “Nurturing Generous Donors.” While I was there to observe, I could not help but reflect on whether the nonprofits I’ve worked for had been nurturing their donors this way.
When I’d been involved with planning fundraising, our focus had always been on reaching a target goal set for the year. This, as the ECRF participants learned, is but one dimension of fundraising. Focusing on the transaction can inhibit the transformation that can take place when relationships are nurtured between donors and recipients.
The goal of all fundraising, especially religious fundraising, is to reach a mode where there is truly transformative giving. While there is no doubt that we would like our organizations to be transformed, the point Melissa Spas, the instructor (and my supervisor at Lake Institute), was trying to make was that organizations should aim to fundraise in a way that allows donors to “discover and then live out the sacred storyline found hiding in the seams of their personal autobiographies.”
The goal for transformative giving is not—at its outset anyway—to raise money, but rather to help donors discover their calling. The idea is that when people discover their calling they will then give generously of their time, effort, and, of course, money to that cause.
To illustrate this point, the participants and I went outside to do a reflective activity called “The Philanthropic Autobiography.” The group was divided into half, forming two concentric circles. We were given a set of questions to answer and only a minute to answer each one. These were not, by the way, questions that could be easily answered in one word.
The point of the quick pace, however, was to elicit deeply seated memories and beliefs. As I moved one person to the right with each question, I found myself invoking my parents—my father in particular—in my answers to the following questions: What is your earliest memory of giving? Who has deeply touched your life? To what places and people do you feel a sense of gratitude? What is the most meaningful or memorable gift you received?
While my father would not fit the profile of what some might consider a “philanthropist,” his form of philanthropy is what has affected me the most. I had to think about it for a bit, but the greatest gift my father gave me was the gift of education—formal and informal.
When my father emigrated from India to Canada in the early 1970s, he did so with the hope of attending university, a reality that was just not possible for him as a young Muslim man living in a newly independent India with no connections to wealthy benefactors. While a university education ultimately proved too difficult for my father in his new home (my mother arrived in Canada a few months later and my sister was born a year after that), he was relentless in making the case for education to his three children, of whom I am the youngest.
Even though there came a time when I would not be able to converse with my father about what I was learning in school, I knew my love of learning and its importance came from him. When I had the opportunity to attend my dream school for my M.A. but did not have enough of my own personal savings, it was my father who paid for the remainder of my graduate education.
While my father would consider paying for my education to be his duty, this “Philanthropic Autobiography” activity opened up a reservoir of memories of my father.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand why it was he who left Canada to tend to his nephew after he suffered a car crash in Saudi Arabia, when my cousin’s own parents in India did not. I also didn’t understand why my father went to visit various community members at the hospital whenever they were ill.
Once, when I was in high school (we had moved to Chicago by this point), I had accompanied my father during one of his visits. When I asked him why we were visiting some distant relation (if that) an hour away from where we lived, my father’s response was simply: “It is Sunnah” (i.e. the Tradition of the Prophet Muhammad). Being in a hospital for whatever reason is not a pleasant feeling, but to have guests come in bearing gifts can turn the entire experience around.
I saw all this growing up without really understanding the “why.” I now realize this was my father’s way of being philanthropic. He gave of what he had. I have thus come to see these actions as my father’s way of living the Prophetic tradition of generosity.
For the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Every Muslim has five rights over another: to return the greetings, to visit the sick, to accompany funeral processions, to accept an invitation, to respond to the sneezer (by asking God to bless them)” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
Our beloved Prophet was not a man of great financial wealth, but he shared whatever little he had with others. Furthermore, he implored his followers to do the same. Money, as I now know, is not the only way in which we can give. We can give of our time, our efforts, and our concern. Our mere presence of simply being there should not be discounted. Intuitively, I believe my father understood this.
While I hope to be in a position one day where I can give freely to causes I support, I understand and have learned from the example of my father—and ultimately the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)—that giving is more than just the money we have in our possession. It begins first with the heart. If religious fundraisers can tap into the heart of why people give, that is when we begin to nurture truly generous donors.
 Whenever the Prophet Muhammad’s name is mentioned, as a sign of respect, Muslims say or write “Peace be upon him.” For brevity’s sake, it will be shortened to “pbuh” for the remainder of this reflection piece.
Rafia Khader is program manager at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and research assistant & managing editor at the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative (MPI).