Muslim NGO’s – special challenges and their solutions

Opening note: Though the title of this article is “Muslim NGOs….” what I have to say applies to all NGOs and not only Muslim ones. I have mentioned some things that are specific to Muslim NGOs like the collection and disbursement of Zakat, but I hope you will find it useful for your NGO, whether you are Muslim or not.

Charity can be done in many ways. The benefit of doing it in a systematic sustainable way is that the results are multiplied and last longer. Sitting outside your house all night in Ramadan, doling out money or material to a long line of supplicants may make you feel very generous, but remember, making people stand in a line like beggars to take aid from your hand is a sign of arrogance. It is not only important to give but to give keeping the dignity of the receiver as the primary consideration. That is why in Islam it is recommended to give in a way that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand gave. This is best for our ego and the dignity of the receiver. To return to the example above, if instead of doling out small amounts to individuals, if a Trust Fund is set up, then this charity can become self-sustaining. That is where systems that we practice in corporate organizations can be a means of great benefit to NGO’s; if they want to use them. Muslims have always been among the most generous people in the world. Our system of Zakat is an element of our Creed. It takes wealth from the rich and gives it, not to a masjid or madrassa or guru or priest (we have no priesthood in Islam), but directly to the beneficiary. Zakat is not left to the generosity of the individual but it is obligatory on every Muslim who has the specified amount of Nisaab. And it can only be given to the person who is poor enough to be eligible to receive it. Muslims give more money in charity, year after year, than any other community in the world. What we lack however, is systems and processes to ensure efficiency of giving and its effectiveness. This note is to help us to address some critical questions to diagnose deficiencies in our charity and to suggest solutions.

Historically, we have almost no examples of NGO’s because the Muslim State was responsible for social welfare. Apart from the State there were Waqf (Religious Endowments) properties and their management was in the hands of their Mutawallis (Trustees). Many times, these were huge and reflect the generosity of spirit of Muslims who globally left literally millions of square miles of land, buildings, built schools and hospitals, set up universities and so on. However, none of these were ‘organizational’ in nature as we understand the term today. Times were different, values were different, and people’s standards, aspirations and dedication were all different. Record keeping, data gathering, management reporting, monitoring effectiveness, performance assessment, training, (especially leadership development), systematic recruitment, succession planning, formal mentoring, compensation, career paths and retirement benefits didn’t normally exist. Consequently, while there was a lot of dedication, there was also a lot of misuse of both the capital and revenue from Awqaf to the extent that in many places, Mutawallis (Trustees) sold Awqaf properties to builders and others and so the very purpose of the Waqf was defeated.

Even where Mutawallis are honest and dedicated, everything revolves around the personal commitment of an individual. There were no systems to care for the needs, aspirations, and dynamics of those who work with him. Further, since there is no formal system of succession planning, mentoring and training and no retirement age for Mutawallis, the Waqf quickly becomes a hereditary ‘zamindari’ (landlord-ship) which is passed on from father to son, no matter how competent or incompetent the son may be. The more the value of the Waqf, the faster this happens. This had (and has) the expected effect of disillusionment of the capable and promoting of sycophants until the circle of self-deception and incompetence is complete. We see this happening even in the case of our Muslim Jamats and Institutions. How many of you can name an organization or movement which had one charismatic leader who created the organization and then the rest of them ride on the bandwagon while leadership goes from father to son? Genetics does not compensate for competence. History is brutally witness to this. The question is how much longer do we wish to continue this toxic system?

Success does not depend on ‘Who’. It depends on ‘What’. A plane does not fly only when a certain person flies it. It flies when anyone who knows what to do, does it. The son of a pilot can inherit his plane, but not his skill of flying. The plane flies because of the skill, not because of the name on the ownership certificate. The same thing applies to Awqaf and Muslim (and any other) organization and movement. We see this happening in Masaajid Committees which are populated by those who funded the masjid, have good hearts and noble intentions but don’t know the first thing about running an organization. Once again, my favorite example; the difference between buying a plane and flying it. One needs money. The other needs time, effort, learning, dedication and lots of experience acquired under the guidance of an expert. Find me a pilot who learned flying without going through this mill. Organization development, conflict resolution, effective communication, team building, and leadership are not inherited. Neither do you learn them in medical school, engineering college or Madrassa or even in Business school. You learn them on the ground working in multiple, high engagement, high personal risk situations, under the guidance of others in that space who are capable of and interested in teaching and mentoring you. It takes time, tears and sometimes, blood. And there are no certificates and graduation ceremonies. You know you have ‘graduated’ when you can resolve conflicts, inspire others, create a vision and leave behind a legacy of honor. It is not about worthless pieces of paper. It is about results on the ground and in the hearts of people. It is about the memories you leave behind. Dedication and sincerity are not a substitute for competence and experience. Both are necessary for success. It is not either or. If only we understand. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for competence.

Another example are the ‘temporary’ organizations that come alive every Ramadan to collect and disburse Zakat. Though the total amount that is collected and disbursed is perhaps half a trillion US dollars, you don’t see its long-term effect because its distribution and benefit is very local and sporadic. Nothing against donating locally. I am only talking about doing things in an organized manner which gives operational efficiencies which sporadic work doesn’t.

To help us understand the difference of approach between NGO’s and commercial organizations let us compare them.

Business Organizations:

  1. Have clear measurable goals
  2. Employees join primarily for material benefits
  3. Motivation is related to received benefits – more = more
  4. Output is measured and measurement is appreciated
  5. Strategic focus, consistency of results is rewarded


  1. Goals not always clear or measured
  2. Employees join for emotional reasons
  3. Motivation is related more to interpersonal relations
  4. Output not measured and there is allergy to measurement
  5. Event driven, sporadic activity

Please note that these are not mutually exclusive differences. Some will overlap. People in business organizations are also motivated by interpersonal relationships, for example. I am mentioning these as general, overall differences based on the difference in focus of the two kinds of organizations.

There is almost a prohibition and disapproval about speaking the language of money and business in an NGO atmosphere as if it is a crime which produces its own hypocrisy of approach because money is important and essential. Pretending that it isn’t, creates a needless conflict of values and avoidable tension. By implication, this disapproval extends to all measuring and reporting systems that are routinely used in business organizations and are their secret of success and growth. The challenge is how we can use them in NGO’s, especially Muslim NGO’s to make the operations more efficient and effective.

In Muslim NGO’s there is often confusion between Thawab and measurable results. The fact is that Allahﷻ‎ will give more reward for better work, so quality must never be compromised for any reason. But most often quality is the first casualty. Anyone insisting on quality is seen as ‘commercial’ and will face disapproval.

Let me ask some questions which please reflect on and answer for yourself.

  1. What is your vision?
  2. Who are you? Why do you exist? What is your differentiator? What makes you unique?
  3. What will happen to your beneficiaries if you vanish?
  4. What are you NOT? Trying to be everything to everyone means that you are nothing to anyone.
  5. Do you exist to eliminate the need that you are trying to fulfill or is that need sustaining you? So, are you creating dependence or independence?
  6. Check: What will happen to YOU if those you claim to be helping, become self-sufficient?
  7. Are you working to make yourself redundant or to ensure that your beneficiaries will always need you?
  8. How do you measure results/effectiveness? In business it is sales revenue. In an NGO what is the measure?
  9. Do you have a documented Strategic Plan?
  10.  Do you have financial control systems, management reporting systems and a code of conduct documented and followed?

Some common challenges and weaknesses in NGO’s

  1. Lack of strategic planning and action and long-lasting results
  2. Loose (or lack of) financial and administrative systems and hesitancy to create or implement them, even more to enforce them.
  3. Volunteering often results in low or no discipline and hesitancy in enforcing professional standards because confusion about kindness, and brotherhood leads to tolerating substandard sloppy work.
  4. Susceptibility to emotional blackmail by organization members, hopeful beneficiaries.
  5. Unsure and volatile source of funds i.e. Zakat and Sadaqa therefore difficult to think about long term project planning.
  6. Confusion about the role of Ulama and non-Ulama in running the organization which produces its own tensions.

5 – Key Areas to Focus on

  1. Clear values and goals
  2. Strategy & Strategic thinking
  3. Metrics & Process Review
  4. Leadership & Successor development
  5. Thinking systemically

Clear values & goals

  1. What do you stand for (Core Values)?
    1. How are these visible in your work (life)?
  2. Why do you exist (Purpose)?
    1. What will happen if you cease to exist?
  3. What is your goal (Vision)?
    1. Who does it help & what will it do for you?

Strategy & Strategic Thinking

  1. Strategic thinking means to be proactive
  2. Strategic thinking means to act before the need
  3. Strategic thinking must permeate the organization
  4. Strategic thinking means investment in people

Metrics & Process Review

  1. What you don’t measure you can’t guarantee
  2. What are your processes for good governance, transparency and accountability?
  3. What (Who) is your benchmark?
  4. What are your processes for recruitment, succession planning, leadership development, performance appraisal, compensation, and severance?

Leadership & Successor development

  1. What does ‘leadership’ mean in your context?
  2. Who is your benchmark for leadership?
  3. What are the processes to identify successors & groom (mentor) them to take over?
  4. What is the system to ensure that succession happens in a logical, time-bound manner?

Indicators of this…

  1. Specified retirement age
  2. Formal Leadership Development/Mentoring program with measurement metrics
  3. Dissent, creativity, change are rewarded
  4. Robust systems, followed consistently

Thinking Systemically

  1. Think (see) systemically, not event driven, ideology driven or personality driven
  2. What are you doing to educate your people to think systemically?
  3. How are you building perspective in your people?

Problems and their solutions

Allergies to cure

  1. Allergy to measurement of results
  2. Allergy to financial transparency
  3. Allergy to work reporting & following rules
  4. Allergy to being questioned
  5. Allergy to succession planning & development

Who in your organization cannot be questioned?

Dilemma of ‘Givers’

  1. Exploitation (emotional blackmail) becomes the natural response to the ‘servant leader’
  2. ‘Give without expectation’, ‘Your reward is with Allahﷻ’, ‘Obey elders without question’, ‘Shut up’
  3. While they laugh all the way to the bank

Who to give? Not everyone

  1. Don’t confuse generosity with selflessness
  2. Don’t accept substandard work in the name of kindness
  3. Effective givers recognize that every ’No’, frees you up to say ‘Yes’ when it matters most
  4. Amplify your impact by looking for ways to help multiple people with a single act of generosity.
  5. Find ways to give without depleting your time and energy because your needs are equally important


  1. Who is your Mentor/Musleh?
  2. What is your criterion for picking him?
  3. What is your Tarbiyya program and its metrics?
  4. How do you involve everyone in it?

You can only give what you have so what do you have?


In conclusion I must say that what is necessary is to put clear systems in place which will ensure the continuity of the work. Whereas the NGO in terms of its external focus towards its beneficiaries may be very self-less, the reality is that people who work in it are subject to the same tensions, pressures, allurements, aspirations and fears that people working in any organization are subject to, with often much less clarity about what they can or can’t do, their career paths, their reporting relationships and so on.

I believe therefore that the greater the clarity on organizational processes, the happier will be those who work with you and your output will be much more efficient and caring. It is essential to spend time to establish robust systems without bureaucracy to facilitate smooth operations.

These would include the following:

  1. Articulating a vision to which members of the organization are equally committed. The challenge is to transfer this across time.
  2. Articulating Core Values of the organization and their Operative Definitions, so that their practice can be measured and monitored. A ‘Value’ is what is visible without the need to explain it.
  3. Robust recruitment processes based on shared vision and clearly defined criteria of education and experience. Formal induction of recruits is necessary.
  4. Changing the mindset from “I am doing a favour to mankind”, to “professional accountability for performance.”
  5. Strong budgeting, goal setting and performance management systems must be created and followed. The key to the effectiveness of any system is that there can be no exceptions. Performance is not what you feel you did, but what is visible and measurable. As clear performance management system is the best resource for the professional and the best way to ensure that the organizational culture is free from politics.
  6. Create ongoing financial resources, instead of being dependent on occasional periodic charity. A sustained source of funds makes it possible to plan and execute long term initiatives. Endowment Funds is the way to go.
  7. Succession planning and mentoring. This is usually totally absent with hero-worship of the founder taking its place and so when the founder dies (no founder ever retires) there is vicious infighting and the organization breaks up. The bigger the organization, the worse the conflict because the stakes are that much higher.
  8. Systematic and early identification of successors, training them, exposing them to graduated challenges, including working outside the organization, mentoring them, (mentors can be external resources) and giving them increasing responsibility as appropriate, are all necessary. Assessing them for suitability and having a ‘spare’ are all important. It is essential to remember that not only is it necessary to be completely objective and strict in assessment of the progress of potential successors, but doing the opposite i.e. being lax and ‘soft’ is highly destructive and the primary reason why the lifetime contribution of the founder gets squandered. Most importantly, in an NGO, the relationship of the successor to the founder is and must never be of any consequence. That is the lethal, fatal mistake that is made most often.
  9. Since many if not most NGOs are dependent on the personal commitment of major donors, it is essential to nurture these relationships and to ensure that the connections are passed on to the successor. Most relationships are by definition, personal to begin with. But if they can be converted to loyalty for the organization, that is most beneficial. That is how Harvard’s endowment fund is worth $39 billion. That happens because of the perceived value of the service that the organization offers.
  10. Finally, there must be strong financial systems and controls while minimizing bureaucracy which usually gets created in the name of financial controls. That only slows down operations and adds no value. Bean counters demanding justification for an extra egg that a person ate for breakfast only aggravate instead of facilitating operations.

NGOs play a hugely critical role in society, especially today when we are faced with predatory politicians and self-serving governments whose priorities are far away from the welfare of the people. You only have to look at the defence budget of any nation and compare it to the budget for education and public health and I can rest my case. The reality of life is that you get what you pay for. When countries invest more money in weapons of mass destruction than they invest in the welfare of their own people, the effect is as expected and entirely visible. The reason this investment happens is because WMD manufacture and sale gives the best ROI. That the cost of it is measured in lives destroyed, widows and orphans, rivers of blood and tears and hardening of hearts and attitudes is neither here nor there, because those whose bank balances swell from this trade don’t care. They live behind walls; deaf and blind to suffering.

NGOs are necessary because they are comprised of those whose hearts are still alive and compassionate and who can make a real difference to those who need it the most. That is the reason why NGOs must be run as efficiently and effectively as possible because they are the symbols of the best elements of our humanity.

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As salaamualykum Sheikh Yawar. I trust you are well and safe. What shall I say? This article was a rude awakening for me! We have this NPC (Non Profit Company) in Sharpeville, South Africa since 1985. I was formally inducted in 1994 and with it ever since. My word! Has this article challenged everything I did then until now and again it made me realise the true depth of the article. It is striking at every chord of our organisational structures because it serves to ask WHY? Yes, WHY are we existing in the first place and how unique are… Read more »

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