Shifting Our Communities From Survival Mode to Strategic Mode


By Maher Budeir, founder and trainer at Balanced Leadership Institute, Inc.  A firm dedicated to training Muslim nonprofit board members and leaders.

How do we get our communities to be more strategic?

We, as Muslim communities, have been performing in a survival mode.   We are reactive.  We focus on tangible programs and buildings.  We look at here and now, and if we are really good we look at one year out.  We think about education options after we already have kids.  Then we look at elementary schools because our kids are that age.  Even though one can argue that if we are able to build a single school it should be a middle or high school as those years are the most difficult for our kids to manage.  But we do not look at the big picture and we do not look far ahead.  Similarly, we expect our masjid board to deal with what happens in the masjid this week and next month.  In response, our organizations have been focused on operations rather than strategy and long term direction.  The average masjid board focuses on how to expand the building to accommodate worshippers as the Friday services attendance grows rather than focussing on the next generation who is in most cases absent from the masjid altogether, and many are barely hanging on to their faith.  We define our institutions by what we have within the four walls rather than the impact on individual lives and the influence on the larger community.

So, how do we transform ourselves to become better strategists?  How do we develop our institutions to become the best run institutions with the balance of excellence in operations and foresight in strategic development?  There are many ingredients that are necessary to advance the development of our Masjids and our schools.

At the operational level

Upgrading our skills and competencies.  Our organizations must be run by professionals who specialize in their individual fields.  Managers and directors must be experts in leadership principles and have strong people skills.  Technology professionals must manage the technology systems, professional accountants must manage our financial matters, and our facilities must be designed, built, and maintained by professional architects, engineers, and facility specialists.  And we do not need a million dollar budget to do that.  Most mid-size or larger communities would have many well qualified professionals within their congregations.  We need to open up our Masjid leadership culture and make it welcoming, so we can reach those resources within the community. Having a handful of people control all management and processes in an organization can stifle the organization and keep skills and talents in the community out of reach. It is the responsibility of masjid leaders to create the welcoming culture and the professional expectation to facilitate reaching the next layers of professional Muslims.  Professionalizing the operations is the responsibility of the executive committee/management team/operation team.  The organization’s board or trustees are part of setting expectations and creating the sense and structure for accountability.

At the strategic level

Systematically assessing our organizational structure, looking at each component of the organization and assessing its current status.  By that I mean the five components:

  1. Governance
  2. Management
  3. Programs
  4. Resources
  5. Systems

These are the main components of each organization.  A mature, high functioning organization needs to have each of these components well developed.  In reality, most Islamic institutions are developed in a need focused basis and the development is driven by needs of specific individuals, expecting certain services and certain events, and if the community is fortunate enough, some visionary individuals come along and randomly insert some visionary ideas during the establishment of the organization. The result is that some components like programs and maybe management may develop well ahead of others, like governance and systems.  Most institutions in their first 10 years of operation are in the survival mode. Pouring all of their energy and resources into establishing basic needs, a facility, hiring basic staff and starting enough programs to validate the need for services.   Rarely, is it that we find a young Muslim organization going through a genuine development of a vision, mission, and guiding principles before starting operations or even in its first few years of operations.  Having a strategic plan in place that is agreed upon by stakeholders in the first five years is almost unheard of among Masjids.  The governing entity (board of trustees or board of directors) is the entity that should evaluate the overall structure of the organization, work on developing a mission and purpose statement, guiding principles, and a strategic plan. This requires specialized expertise and skill sets that are different than what is needed on the executive team. Both are places of leadership but the executive team is about action and execution of plans.  The board is about setting standards , establishing strategic goals,  and measuring progress.  Most Muslim organizations have not distinguished between the two entities.  Most have not been structured to have this separation between governance and execution.  A small organization can definitely survive without separating the two.  Even a good size masjid can survive with one board assuming governance and management.  Some even argue that a masjid has survived  and functioned fine for 20 or 30 years with one entity assuming the governance and management functions.

What is our standard?

However, the question we need to ask is: “Is survival the goal”?  Are we striving towards existence and towards providing services week in and week out?  Or are we committed to run the masjid as the best functioning organization? Shouldn’t the house of Allah be the leading example of how a high functioning organization should run? Shouldn’t our masjid incorporate the highest standards of running a non profit and demonstrate that incorporating Islamic principles can only enhance and elevate the level of performance? Shouldn’t the masjid ensure that each generation is more involved in the larger community, better committed to serving Allah (SWT), better educated about their faith, and better capable to represent Islam in their community than the previous generation?  If a masjid has survived for 20 years having one do-it-all board, imagine how much better it could have done if it had a more mature,better defined, and more professional organization from day one.  How many more youth could have been saved and not been abandoned? How may converts could have had better guidance and companionship in their journey? How many families could have been counseled better, how may young adults could have become more interested is pursuing islamic studies professionally? How many non Muslims could have been positively impacted by an well functioning organization that promotes positive values?

Even in the business environment, a business can start small with a businessman who wears many hats.  He/she may manage the business, strategize for the best business plan, and do the books, and many other things.  However, as a business grows, the smart business owner realizes that he is better off seeking professional help to do the accounting.  Eventually, the business person may realize that he/she needs to hire a manager so that he/she can free his/her time to do what he/she does best, such as developing the business, or working on partnerships, or changing the business strategy to start franchising.  The businessman will always own the vision and keep an eye on what the future holds, while the hired manager takes care of daily operations.

How are we measuring success? This is the deen of Allah (SWT), and the Prophet’s message of doing good and spreading goodwill and excellence (Ihsan).  Just serving is not our criteria.  Our organizations must be the best run, highest performing nonprofits.  They must set new standards of professionalism, efficiency, and excellence.

In summary,

  1. There has to be a commitment on the leadership of our Muslim organization stemming from the Islamic teaching of doing what we do with excellence (Ihsan)
  2. Leaders must recognize that it takes two sets of skills and for most mid size to larger communities separating governance and management will help focus and effectiveness at the operational front as well as the strategic front.
  3. Opening up the organizations’ culture is essential for reaching the professional talent and skills in the community.
  4. To get professional results, the organization must seek specialized and trained professionals.
  5. Trustees and board members must understand the essential components of the organization and have a good sense of the level of development of each component.
  6.  Seek professional training and services in areas where we do not have experts.
  7. Do not be shy to examine other social nonprofit, faith-based or otherwise, organizations, benchmark their experiences, and learn from their results.  It is much easier to find a well functioning model and then overlay the Islamic aspects to it, than to start from the ground level.
  8. Network and benchmark other mosques around the country that are already well developed and talk to them and seek their advice.  In this age of connectivity, one can easily connect and follow successful organizations to learn from their experience.
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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters, Qalam Institute, Muslim Strategic Initiative, and Debt Free Muslims. He is a regular khateeb and has served in different administrative capacities in various national and local Islamic organizations. He works full time in the corporate field, is a PMP, and certified Leadership Trainer through the John Maxwell Team. You can follow him on on Twitter @ibnabeeomar, and check out his latest project - The Fiqh of Social Media.

Omar UsmanShifting Our Communities From Survival Mode to Strategic Mode

2 Comments on “Shifting Our Communities From Survival Mode to Strategic Mode”

  1. Siraj Berhan

    Excellent article. Jazaak Allah Khair for sharing.

    I’m glad you had pointed out the issue of: “What is our standard?” I think it’s worth highlighting the root causes for the symptoms you have highlighted in terms for lack of strategic thinking. It seems to me that too many of our Masjid/Islamic centers in the west operate as an island on their own. I think it would be interesting to learn about the history of how a lot of these Masjids/Centers have started and evolved.

    It seems to me that in every profession or system we have a regulatory body that acts to standardize/arbitrate/enforce the governance of the institutions across a jurisdiction – whether it’s in the legal/medical/financial/etc. fields. Even when it comes to governance of Islamic institutions as far as I know in a Muslim country you’ll find a Ministry of Religious Affairs or something similar that is the ultimate authority in that area. As such, you won’t be able to open or continue to operate a Masjid/Islamic center on your own unless you have a license and follow the standards.

    How can the Muslim communities and leadership evolve to have in place a much needed licensing / governing body? Is that possible and any recommendations for how to support the evolution of such a governing body?

  2. Maher

    That is exactly why we started BLI as a professional Board training service. Governing Board service require specific skill sets. Most board members are placed on the board for their status in the community, their volunteerism or donation, not because they have the skills needed. Therefore training is needed to build capacity. Feel free to email me for more details.

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