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Giving: From Zakat to Social Entrepreneurship

WHO Foundation philanthropy executives Reem Abdelhamid and Jami Vass share their personal perspectives on philanthropic giving.

Ramadan is regarded as Islam’s chief giving season. What role does charitable giving play in the wider culture?

Reem: I should make it clear that I will talk mainly about the context in Saudi Arabia, where I live, and also Egypt, where I am from. Charitable giving is an important part of Islam and Ramadan is the traditional time for Muslims to show charity and goodwill in the form of gifts of cash.  There is a clear spiritual component.

There are several forms of giving.  Zakat, which must be paid before the passing of a full Islamic lunar year,  is the only one that is mandatory, and one of the five pillars of Islam. Sadaqah is voluntary charity, and it includes good deeds, not only giving cash or assets and takes place any time in the year. There are others too, but they are the most well-known. During Ramadan the TV commercials are all about giving.

Jami: Well, in the US, people  tend to give around the Christmas or holiday season but I think it’s now less about being connected to a religious festival and more about convenience as it is also the end of the tax year. It has become institutionalized and tends to start around Thanksgiving. Of course, people give from a sense of goodwill but there’s less of a clear cultural or religious connection in the timing.

What causes do people traditionally support in your experience?

Reem: Traditionally, giving takes place within your immediate circle, perhaps a family member or a household member or a member of an extended family circle. Often for a medical intervention (a surgery or treatment) or for the education of a child, something where you can see the immediate impact. Health and education are traditionally seen as worthwhile causes. In Egypt, which is a country with a long and rich history, charitable giving is very well established, there are hundreds of non-profit organizations and historically it was seen as a duty  that wealthier families would take care of all their staff and workers. Fundraisers and other charitable activities for causes beyond the household were also expected to be undertaken by these families.Beyond this and in more contemporary times, people give to causes in the region, where we have around 40 percent of the world’s humanitarian crises, or where they have cultural connections. Issues affecting Palestinians dominate but there are many others; during the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, a lot of money was donated to support refugees (who had sought safety in Bangladesh), and more recently, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Syria crisis, Lebanon, and now Sudan!

Jami: In the US, people really tend to give locally to their churches to fund local enterprises. I’m mainly talking about people giving small amounts in large quantities, not larger gifts from individuals, which are usually the result of a close relationship between the cause and the individual concerned.  People  like to be recognized for their contributions; they enjoy seeing their name associated with a good cause.  That’s very important. Beyond this, there are large and well-established charitable organizations such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Association and animal welfare cases. And yes, education too. Endowment of a building in a university is a well established form of philanthropy.

Reem: Gaining recognition is less of a phenomenon here. There are two schools of thought. One, the conservative view, is that charity is between ‘me and God’ and it is private. This means it can be hard to get an accurate picture of how much is donated because so much giving goes unrecorded. On the other hand, there is a belief that we should set an example through doing good, to encourage other people to follow.

Have you witnessed a change in the way that people give?

Reem: Until 9/11 giving in Saudi Arabia was very liberal: there were boxes in supermarkets and in Mosques  but now it’s much more tightly regulated with the emergence of official giving platforms to avoid funding being misused. Traditional giving still exists, of course, but the trend is towards giving through these platforms. There is a generational difference too: there is a move towards people giving beyond their local environment or familiar circles to something more like professional philanthropy. People with wealth are establishing family foundations and shifting from traditional charity to institutionalized philanthropy  and young people want to see their donations having a social impact: they are tech-savvy, well-connected and they want to be good citizens and to make a change.

Another change I’ve noticed is that people, particularly young people, are much more likely to volunteer their time to help out, whether that’s cleaning beach fronts or handing out food. You see people on the streets giving out snacks to commuters in the cars who are hungry because they are stuck in traffic when it’s time to break fast during Ramadan. My children and their friends see volunteering as worthwhile, while in the past, many may have considered it as being beneath them to do something menial. That has changed drastically in the past 10 years or so. It is becoming an integral part of the education system.

Jami: Here, the culture of young people volunteering is very established. Peace Corps, and Teach for America, for example are well known. And of course, voluntarism was introduced by the Puritans, who saw it as a way to serve God. Now, most adults have little time to volunteer and are more likely to give money as a way to contribute.

What’s the role of corporate giving?

Reem: Zakat is mandatory for businesses and it is regulated by the government. It must be declared.  Beyond Zakat, there is an increasing recognition that it is important to engage  beyond monetary giving, via employee engagement with good causes, for example. Sadly, however, when cuts need to be made, the budget of social corporate responsibility (CSR) is the first to go.

Jami: In the US, corporate giving or corporate social responsibility is well advanced and more often than not, is in fact part of the business proposition. It’s part of the brand.

Which fundraising approaches  are you watching with interest?

Jami: Impact investing. Innovative financing. I’m curious to learn more about  approaches to funding good causes that offer  people a return on their investment, while contributing to health, environmental or social causes.

Reem: I agree. I’m watching with interest to learn more about how to engage in this space.

Learn more about the WHO Foundation’s approach to philanthropic partnerships, business partnerships and impact investing at:

Anna Egan

April 21, 2023, 14 min. read
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