As I took a look at the agenda for the Symposium on Muslim Philanthropy and Civil Society, I couldn’t help but wish that I could attend the entirety of the two-day event.
My schedule gave me the opportunity to attend one session though, one I greatly looked forward to. The session specifically focused on zakat (a form of annual almsgiving obligatory for Muslims), with the three presenters all emerging scholars in this field.
Zeeshan Noor from the University of Texas at Dallas discussed his work studying the social media behavior of American-based Muslim nonprofits. As a communications professional, I’m always curious about how different organizations use communications and marketing to their own benefit. As a user of several personal social media platforms, I’m also interested in seeing how nonprofits use social media to connect with their audiences.
Noor explained how communication amongst these platforms can often be tied to stakeholder needs. This isn’t surprising. We search and publish content that we believe is of interest to our readers and those committed to philanthropy in some capacity (whether they currently studied or graduated from the program, practitioners looking for information about the field, etc.). The same is true for traditional nonprofits. Social media can help raise awareness about the work that you do and can also be used to generate donations.
But I digress. In his research, Noor found that Muslim nonprofits rely more on Facebook than Twitter. Facebook is the home to lengthier posts and complex algorithms. I would assume that nonprofits could raise more money on Facebook than Twitter. But when it comes to awareness and engagement with stakeholders, I do wonder which platform works better, especially moving into the future with what seems to be a lack of younger generation members (looking at you, Gen Zers!) using Facebook.
Esra Tunc from University of California Santa Barbara discussed her work with capital, emotions, and performing zakat. She explained how often capital and monetary flows don’t account for emotion and that individuals often contrast emotions with financial goals. However, zakat encourages the use of emotion when making decisions about how to give.
I wonder if this can be applied to giving and philanthropy as a whole. Fundraisers help connect donors with missions and organizations those donors are passionate about. Values and emotions play a strong role in fostering donation decisions. Rafia Khader, a program manager here at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and organizer of the symposium, wrote that “giving begins first with the heart.” I don’t believe we can separate giving from emotions that come with it (regardless of what our motivations for giving may be).
Finally, graduate student Asrar Jaber from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy discussed a literature review of zakat that Dr. Shariq Siddiqui and she conducted. She studied different motivations for practicing zakat, how to use zakat to obtain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and what geographies around the world produce the most publications about zakat.
Many of the studies on zakat were conducted in Muslim majority countries, focused on Sunni Muslims, without much research connecting zakat and humanitarian aid.
As someone who is not Muslim and does not specifically study Muslim philanthropy, it makes me wonder: how good are we collectively about conducting studies outside our own sphere of influence?
Should we even attempt to, since we don’t know that culture and society and don’t want to impose our own values and opinions on others? Or are there benefits to studying cultures and societies from different perspectives? I’m not sure I have an answer for this, but I do think it’s important to understand other perspectives. As the U.S. population becomes more diverse and we are increasingly connected to individuals around the world, knowing and studying other cultures can be beneficial.
If we work in nonprofit settings, it’s increasingly important to understand how other people understand philanthropy in order to improve our own version of it. Jaber’s study showed that it’s important to study changes in research and publications over time in order to understand a different system or way of philanthropy better.
In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know. So why not learn something new and expand our nonprofits’ capacities to interact with new ideas and people different from us?