Guest post by Dr. Jerry Hionis
To be expeditious and answer the above question immediately: many masājid have funding problems because they present themselves as a charity case instead of a worthwhile investment. What proceeds, insha’Allah, is a greater explanation of this statement.
Most are aware that there is a crisis within the Muslim community — and in many other religious communities as well — when in comes to the financial stability of the masjid. We have all heard the crazy stories of (or even experienced) “hostage fundraising” during Ramadhan or seen the decay of a once beautiful masjid due to neglect. In truth, the question of how a masjid functions financially has two sides: (i) how are funds collected; and, (ii) how are funds spent? I cannot honestly approach the latter question because it is way too case specific and I would hate to pigeon whole the entire community based upon the bad practices by a subset, however large it may be, of masājid. Therefore, we can analyze this problem by pursuing the former question: how does a masjid collect funds?
Before we examine this problem, it first needs to be understood what the masjid, at least to the economist, is exactly. The field of economics classifies goods and services into four categories — private, club, common and public — in regards to two essential characteristics: excludability and rivalry. Excludability refers to whether or not the access to consume a specific good is restricted, usually through some explicit or implicit cost, while rivalry is defined when the consumption of a good by one person decreases the quantity that can be consumed by others. The below table illustrates these four types of goods in respect to excludability and rivalry.
A private good is the standard type of product that we interact with: if I want to eat a candy bar, for example, a price needs paid to obtain it for consumption and if I am eating the candy bar, no one else can eat it at the same time. A club good also requires a cost for access to consumption but unlike its private counterpart, it is also non-rivalrous; that is, multiple people can consume the good at the same time where one can consume the good without decreasing the consumption possibilities of another. A private golf course or a beach requiring a purchased “beach badge” are classic examples of club goods. Private and club goods are not too problematic because their excludable nature leads to the creation of a market and an associated (equilibrium) price.
Fundamental distribution problems become present when excludability is not present. A good is labeled common when its access is open to all (i.e., not associated cost/price) yet one’s consumption does negatively affect another’s. This leads to what is known as the “Tragedy of the Commons”: free and open access to a finite good will lead to an unsustainable supply and its eventual exhaustion. Overfishing and overhunting are the most often example brought up to explain this problem. The natural solution to this problem is to turn common good into club or private one by issuing consumption rights (such as fishing and hunting licenses) and, hence, creating a market.
Such a solution, unfortunately, does not always apply to the case of public goods where anyone has access and can partake in the consumption of while not decreasing the possible consumption of another; i.e., the theory of mathematics or national defense. Public goods are problematic for economists because it leads to the infamous “Free-Rider Problem”: one can obtain benefit from a public good without incurring any of the cost to produce it. In other words, the wealthier and/or those who value the good the most will contribute to its funding while others will essentially “free ride”.
While many solutions have been posited to help convert public goods into private or club ones (the Vickrey-Clarke-Groves auction mechanism is one of the more popular), most are based upon limiting the access and benefit of a public good by instituting a value-reveling mechanism. This is where the masjid, being an unrestricted house of worship, becomes a special type of public good. Because praying and attending special services like jum’ah and tarāwīh prayers are open to any and all (assuming they are Muslim, of course), methods such as mandatory masjid membership or door fees are eliminated. Masājid, being left with few options, apply the three easiest to implement: the after-jum’ah donation box, the incessant reminder to donate and the delaying of communal services until a specific level of donations are met. All three are meant to inflict upon the masjid attender with the same social cost as your average street beggar: shame. Shame does have its place and is an acceptable mode of eliciting behavior, but it does not seem to be working very well and we can do better.
How many times have we stepped into a masjid — even one that we consider to be “my masjid” or “my community” — and feel as if we are guests in someone else’s house (and know, that “someone else” I am referring to is not Allah s.w.t)? How times have we heard the age-old complaints about that shadowy figure known as the “Masjid Board” or the “REAL leader of the Masjid Board”? How many times have we seen that every decision needs to be OK-ed by a few select “Masjid Elites”? This infantization is a direct result of the community taking the backseat and expecting someone else to deal with the masjid. This is not to say masājid are devoid of the existential bureaucratic problems of transparency, aggressive personalities and control. Of course these problems exist. Masjid organization and governance is run by humans and will always be subject to flaws both great and small. All that being said, let us be clear and honest: if we expect a small handful of individuals to pay for the masjid, then we should not be shocked when a small handful of individuals are making the decisions.
My recommendation then is for masājid to change their strategy away from panhandling and toward suppliers of an indispensible resource to the community. To help illustrate this idea, I offer an anecdotal story from my upbringing. Being the product of two Greek Americans (one an immigrant and the other the child of immigrants), I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church. For better or for worse, we were there all the time: school, Sunday school, Greek Orthodox Youth Association (GOYA) meetings, Art programs/competitions, Greek dancing lessons and, believe it or not, basketball teams and tournaments . . . oh yeah, and church services. It became part of our identity. For much of its history, the majority of congregation members at my family’s church were blue-collar immigrants: pizza shop and diner owners, painters, carpenters, plumbers, masons and so on. True, there were a few doctors, accountants, lawyers and engineers and many donated money to the church . . . but both those with greater and fewer means offered other services, including their time. Church needed to be repainted? Done. Church needed new carpets or tile? Done. Church needed food? Done. Church needed electrical or HVAC work? Done. This community support did more than maintain the daily upkeep to the church. It helped increase a sort of job or investor recognition. Congregation members did not feel as if they were attending a church that was owned or financed by a handful of individuals. Everyone who donated and volunteered their services felt the a sort of ownership of the church/community.
Therefore, to quote Lenin, What is to be done? Below are three action points that I believe are a good foundation to help create sustainable funding for any masjid, big or small:
- Increase the value of the community’s investment: What is your community getting out of the masjid? Does the masjid offer five-daily prayers, jum’ah, tarāwīh, part-time Qur’an memorization and beginner’s Arabic classes? That’s great . . . but so does almost every other masjid that you are competing (in a halal way, of course) against. With the every increasing secularization of our youth and mounting pressures to apostate, the masjid should be an important component to each member’s life. The masjid should be the first place one goes to in looking for a solution to one’s spiritual, cultural and worldly problems. Again, my parents constantly donated both money and time to their church because they saw it as an irreplaceable need in their children’s lives. Some recommended classes and activities are:
- Youth directors and programs that are both relevant and up-to-date: We complain about the disinterest of the youth, but what are we really doing to stop it? The lack of consistency, dedication and, in general, imagination by many communities over these types of programs is picked up by the youth. If you are not interested and excited, neither will they. The most effective programs have people — whether paid (preferred) or volunteering — who are specifically dedicated to this mission. If we want our children to be friends with and one day marry Muslims, then they have to want to be around them!
- Social activities — for both the youth and adults: Does the community really know each other? I can attest that as social as one can be, it is almost impossible to know who everyone in the masjid is . . . especially when social activity is frowned upon. Without going so far as to start requiring nametags, it is great to have programs dedicated for the direct purpose of the community getting to know others outside of their immediate families and ethnic enclaves.
- Business “meet-and-greets” for entrepreneurs within the congregation: Religious circles are one of the greatest assets to a new entrepreneur. This is not meant to be a way for the masjid to discover whom they can pressure into securing free services from (Side note: while donating one’s service is recommended, masājid should always offer to pay first. Period. End of story.). Instead, these programs can help create both professional and social networks that extend the community outside of jum’ah prayers.
- Convert inclusion programs beyond giving shahadah: With an increasing number of people embracing Islam, masājid should be increasing their efforts to interact with new converts. An inclusive and diverse congregation should be the aim of every masjid.
- Social Services: There comes a time when everyone needs help: domestic abuse, divorce, marital issues, financial woes, spiritual crises and so on. These problems should not be left for the Imam to deal with alone. Again, empathy, networking and understanding who is in your community are the essential components needed for a functional Ummah.
- Create an organized stewardship program: I know it can be hard to believe but people tend to lean towards organization. Random fundraising is interpreted as unimportant and tends to fall on deaf ears. Consistent fundraising is interpreted as annoying and a signal that people are wasting money. Instead, set up a couple times across the (Gregorian) calendar where everyone knows there will be a fundraising drive; for example, the end of August and the beginning of January. No, this does not mean Ramadhan. Ramadhan fundraising should be the surplus a masjid puts away for special projects and expansions. These bi-yearly fundraising drives should be to sustain the basic expenses of the masjid. In addition, make donating to the masjid easy by creating monthly or yearly stewardship/donation pledges. Given that most wish not to be hassled consistently about such donations, direct withdraw is the preferred method. Never forget the old adage: “out of sight, out of mind”. The less one is bothered about such transactions, the less they are willing to stop paying.
- Embrace the Internet: Since most do not carry cash on them as frequently as before, the donation box outside of the musallā is ineffective. We have so many IT professionals and tech savvy youth in our congregations yet the majority of masjid websites are atrocious and look like they were created (and last updated) before the new millennium. Therefore, use the Internet to one’s advantage. This is a great way to get the youth involved! Forms, copies in triplicate, filing and all other manner of paperwork are viewed as being the work of Shaytan. Online sign-ups and email confirmation make the experience of donating easier and, hence, more enjoyable. This is the key: donating, especially to the masjid, should be an enjoyable experience!
The above steps are not easy to implement. But while there is a temptation to write these off as being too “costly”, remember that there is room for everyone in the community to participate. I personally have heard some brothers and sisters claim they are too busy to volunteer to do X, Y or Z at the masjid but are willing to write a check. I also know that there are brothers and sisters who would love to be active but feel impotent about their role because they have little to give financially. Instead of just blanketed asking for someone to create/head a specific program or project, try reaching out to individuals and ask what they would like to do for the masjid. I truly believe people would be surprised what others are willing to offer if only given the chance.
In conclusion, the only way to create a sustainable revenue source for the masjid is to present it as a sound investment to the congregation so as to elicit a consistent line of funding. The big checks and special fundraising drives are great for special projects like building the “new masjid”, but such project and investment decisions should be made with the future depreciation and general upkeep costs in mind. This is where sustainable funding becomes essential. Utility bills, loan/interest payments, Imam and administration salaries and benefits, organizational/education budgets, janitorial services and general masjid upkeep costs should not be the subject of last minute aggressive fundraising. Insha’Allah, we can do better.