My experience celebrating philanthropy in DC

“Celebrating Philanthropy in Emerging Economies” was the title of the 2014 Global Donors Forum that took place April 14 – 16 in Washington D.C. during the cherry blossom season. The Global Donors Forum is the biennial convening of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists that seeks to promote effective giving and forge strategic partnerships for high-impact social investment. I was thrilled when Jenny Hodgson from the Global Fund for Community Foundations invited me to join a plenary with a remarkable of group of community foundation gurus like Avila Kilmurray from the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (who will be joining the GFCF staff as Director of Strategy and Policy in July), who moderated the plenary entitled “Community Philanthropy for Social Cohesion”, together with Rita Thapa from Tewa in Nepal and Haaris Ahmed from Canton Community Foundation in the U.S.

El-Daly (centre), Kilmurray (second from right) and Thapa (far right)

As a believer in community philanthropy and the role of local change-makers in enhancing living conditions, opportunities and fair access to resources for all citizens, the forum was an important venue for me. In times of crisis and in relation to the so-called democratic transformation after what we used to refer to as the “Arab Spring”, civil society and community philanthropy are being challenged as never before. Our session on community philanthropy reflected the depth of this challenge. As Kilmurray indicated, people of the Dalia Association in Palestine or those young people working in the Cluj Community Foundation in Romania (among others across the world) are part of a coming of age of community foundations. Such organizations are pooling resources in creative and dynamic ways to respond to the root causes of social injustice. Through presentations of the WMCF and Tewa, our session demonstrated how the power of people coming together to effect change also brings hope and power to actions that are empowering and sustainable.

After what was an engaging discussion that highlighted community foundations’ spirit of “business as unusual”, there was a plenary on faith-based giving innovations that drew on models from Malaysia. A plenary entitled “Zakat: The Unexplored Power of Faith Giving”, moderated by Achmat Sali, Director of Islamic Studies of the University of Detroit, spoke about how faith-based giving like “Zakat” could be used as a tool for justice. Equally inspiring was the discussion on the model of “waqf” which means endowment and is an indigenous tool in the Arab and Muslim Worlds that has allowed for the creation of private foundations that are called waqf, Waqfeyat or Awqaf. These functioned as civic donor-advised funds for hundreds of centuries, serving development until governments confiscated them under a ministry in each country of this vast region. Thus, in the forum, it was very informative to see how the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development (ISFD) has capitalized on this old and forgotten tool that was adapted by the West yet forgotten in the East, to fund social development projects across the world.

The session entitled “Unleashing the potential of Islamic social assets” by Diab Karrar, the Activing Director of the IFSD and Manager of the Awqaf Properties Investment Fund (APIF), spoke about innovative solutions for reviving the “property waqf” and encouraging social investors to contribute to it. Of course this was “big money” talk by the bank and it was not so relevant in monetary terms to the cash-waqf revival mechanism that we have been developing in Egypt. However, it was great learning between two organizations, a community foundation and a bank, even with all differences approach. The first lesson for me, as a representative of an Egyptian community foundation, was the importance of big capital to invest in property or cash waqf – which means further battles on the legal arena to change policies in this time of transition in Egypt, in addition to the fundraising challenge. In the case of a “property waqf” partnership between the bank and a community foundation such as ours it would involve the community foundation having rights to a particular piece of land on which some kind of business (such as a hotel, a private school, etc) could be developed. Any profits from the partnerships would be divided equally between the bank and the community foundation to support its development projects in a sustainable way.

Last but not least, the highlight of this forum, apart from these interesting linkages, potential partnerships, models, power struggles, etc, was that the forum signaled the launch of the “Hassanah Fund” that was initiated by the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists. The IFSD provided its seed funding, a form of cash-waqf, that has allowed the Hassanah Fund to begin working on its mission of combatting hunger across the world. Some involved theorized that USD $5 million was a modest amount and, as I learned in Washington, a cash-waqf is typically around USD $20 million to be worthy of the investment: a depressing fact that I quickly turned into a target. If others can manage to raise such funds, our community could too!

Marwa El Daly is Chair of the Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation (WMCF) in Egypt

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