muslims, politics

Building Self-Sufficient Mosques

Here’s a cross-post by a friend of mine who just graduated from McGill University with a Masters in Neuroscience. How can Canadian mosques sustain themselves idependently? How can our mosques facilitate Muslim participation in social and  cultural areas of our scoiety? How can mosques provide necessary services for those in their communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, according to their mandates, while still balancing their books? Muhammad Ashour explores these topics.
Year after year, the overwhelming majority of our mosques dedicate a full hour during this busiest night of Ramadan in order to collect donations from congregants. Oftentimes, it is the same Imam making the same plea to the same people, and surprisingly enough, for the same amount of money that was requested the previous year. What’s more, the Imam recycles the same emotional appeals – primarily intended to soften hearts, but often triggering intense feelings of guilt – that were made the previous year, and the year before that**. The result? The same amount of money is raised as the previous year.

Since that amount was clearly not enough last year – otherwise, why did we have another fundraiser this year? – it is only logical to assume that it will not be enough this year, and we may as well mark our calendars and be sure that the same fundraiser will be scheduled next Ramadan. This is the inevitable outcome of repetition. Which is why I am always surprised to see so many people express bewilderment when they come back the next year and see that the status quo has not budged. What did they expect?

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. In principle, that is exactly what we are doing. We are changing no variables, and yet, we expect that these problems will somehow disappear on their own, or better yet, solve themselves over time. They never do.

Take the self-sufficiency of our mosques (or lack thereof) as a case in point.

** (To be fair, the appeals made by our mosques are (usually) neither exaggerated nor hyperbolic. It is true: our mosques will not be able to continue their programs, and their very existence may even be threatened unless we collectively raise a large six-figure sum or more. So although I hate stating the obvious, allow me to issue an unequivocal disclaimer lest any reader misunderstands me:

There is more evidence from the book of Allah and the sunnah of His Messenger extolling the virtues of donating generously, whether publicly or privately, through hardship or ease, than there are words in this article. Needless to say, my objective is not to undermine the need of our mosques, or to suggest that we should stop donating to them. I am simply arguing that donations are not the only means by which our mosques could be financially supported, and certainly not the most creative one.)

Relying Exclusively on Donations: A Failing Strategy

Just like virtually all places of worship in Canada, our mosques are not publicly funded. So in order to pay their hydro bills, expand their parking lots, increase their prayer spaces, host soup kitchens, and engage in public relations, our mosques have no choice but to rely on private sources of revenue. Which is not really all that bad. Except, for some reason, our mosques have interpreted “rely on private sources of revenue” to mean “rely exclusively on the generosity of donors.” This is not only an exercise in poor reading comprehension, it is also a chilling demonstration of our collective lack of creativity.

Let us begin with the obvious problem that relying exclusively on donations not only stunts the growth potential of our mosques, but it also severely restricts the circulation of funds to various activities and community initiatives. And instead of finding novel (halal) ways to expand their financial resources so that they can accommodate this vast array of noble projects, our mosques opt for the easier option. They dump these wonderful opportunities into the trash – we are terrible at recycling, aren’t’ we? – and resign to the glass ceiling of donations.

Sadly, this has been the modus operandi of most of our mosques for time immemorial. They limit their activities not according to their creative capacity, but rather, according to how much money they are given. Over time, this leads to the atrophying of imaginations and results in money no longer being a means to an end, but rather, becoming an end in and of itself.

In the past, our mosques used to practice a needs-based approach to asking for money (“we have calculated our expenses for the upcoming year to equal ‘$$$’, and therefore, ask that you help us raise ‘$$$’”). Today, most of our mosques do not have a dollar amount in mind when they carry out fundraisers, precisely because they are not really sure how much money they need, and for what. They just ask for money first, and then find ways to spend it later. This kind of thinking is not only circular, but it almost guarantees that that things will spiral out of control very, very rapidly.

Indeed, this kind of disoriented financial entropy is already starting to taint the (once unshakeable) credibility of our mosques. Specifically, our community is growing more and more skeptical about donating to mosques that are becoming less and less transparent about what exactly they are doing with that money. Sure, we see large donation thermometers plastered inside many of our mosques, metaphorically revealing how unhealthy our financial situation is. But this is not transparent accountability; it is simply a progress report.

Accountability means lucid, detailed and straight-forward answers to some basic questions like:

What exactly are the expenses incurred by the mosque, and how much money is required to cover these expenses? How did the mosque administration use the donations that were collected last year?  Did the administration meet the goals they set, or did they fall short?

These questions are as simple as they are necessary. Yet, most of us do not bother asking them either because we do not want to offend the administration, or because the administration has a terrible history of providing meandering, unsatisfactory answers. The truth is, both of these concerns are entirely unwarranted in our faith. The biographies of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him are studded with examples of brute honesty and healthy confrontations for the sake of maintaining accountability, ultimately for the sake of Allah.

In fact, by not confronting these issues with clemency sooner, we make hostile confrontations inevitable later on. Last year, I was praying taraweeh at a mosque in Montreal, Quebec.  After the first four units of prayer ended, the Imam quickly rushed to the minbar (podium) and grabbed the microphone before anyone had a chance to furtively escape. He then proceeded to request – actually, demand – that the congregation help raise money for ongoing projects in the mosque. Out of no where, a brother sitting a few feet away from me shot up and shouted something at the Imam and then turned around and stormed out of the prayer hall. I gasped. So did everyone around me. I couldn’t believe that this almost sacrilegious act took place in front of me, and I felt compelled to give this brother a piece of my mind. So I followed him.

After listening to his fiery monologue – which lasted a full half hour – I realized that although unjustified, his rage was certainly understandable. “I donated ten-thousand dollars last year to this mosque brother, ten thousand!” he snapped, yelling in a deep voice that was punctuated with a dilute Middle-Eastern accent, drawing more and more people around us. “Last year, the mosque also asked for the same [amount of] money because of construction. I come back this year, and the mosque looks the same, the parking lot looks the same, the programs look the same, everything is the same! Where is our money going? Where are these projects? Where is the construction?”

I was speechless. All I could do was what I set out to do, which was to remind him that we were in a place of worship and that he ought to have exercised more restraint and greater wisdom. I also gave him a rather sheepish, disingenuous reassurance that ‘there is probably a very good explanation with someone somewhere’.

The truth is, we all shared his frustration deep inside. We all had the same questions burning within. And because our shyness prevented us from raising these concerns sooner, we created a void that this brother ended up filling in the manner he knew best.

Incidents like these are neither rare nor isolated, and unfortunately, mishaps like the one that occurred at the Islamic Society of North America earlier this year do not exactly help the situation. Although it was an extreme example of accountability-gone-wrong, the ISNA episode served as an eye-opening revelation to a simple fact we have all been ignoring all along: our mosque administration is made up of brothers and sisters like you and I, and we all make mistakes. That is what checks-and-balances are there for. They make those mistakes transparent enough for everyone to see, increasing the likelihood that they will be corrected promptly. 

Simply put, it is no longer good enough for our local mosque to tell us that we need $200,000 in order to expand the parking lot. We need to know how many more parking spaces that money is going to buy, and if the trade-off is ultimately worth it. We need to know who the contractor is, whether they offered the best deal, and what the expected date of completion is.  Above all, we want to know if this project is the most salient and productive use of our money, or if there are priorities whose need is of a far more pressing nature.

Implementing this level of transparency will make our mosques infinitely more efficient and effective. It will bolster our trust in our respective administrations, it will give us greater confidence in the agency of our mosques, and it will provide us feedback on the usefulness of our contributions. It may even inspire us to donate more. However, this still does not solve our fundamental problem. After all, we want our mosques to rely on donations less, not more.

So how can our mosques become financially self-sustaining? 

Towards Self-Sufficiency

To start with, none of the ideas I am about to share are either novel or unprecedented. In fact, several mosques have already tried to implement certain measures in order to generate their own revenue, and a few have even met this with some degree of success. However, these efforts are often isolated and there is very little incentive for them to be taken very seriously. (After all, why on earth should our mosques trouble themselves to make money if the money they need is given to them on a golden plate every year?)

Our Islamic Centers and mosques need to create consistent streams of revenue that can be channeled back into the mosque for the sake of funding its panoply of activities. Plainly speaking, our mosques need to make money, and then use that money to pay its own bills and possibly more. How can this happen? Well, that very question is the playground on which our creativity ought to run wild. Consider the following thought experiment.

Arbitrarily, I have selected the Halton Mosque in Burlington, Ontario as the subject on whom we shall conduct our experiment. Since you may not be familiar with this mosque and its specifications, here they are briefly:

The Halton Mosque is arguably the only mosque that serves the entire community of Burlington and its surrounding region, a significant 10 km radius. The mosque can accommodate approximately 600 worshippers at full capacity, give or take. The congregation is composed of virtually every background and ethnicity, but the overwhelming majority of worshippers are of Middle-Eastern descent, followed by those of South-Asian origins.  Finally, the property is divided approximately as follows: the mosque takes up 30% of the property, the parking lot takes up 60%, and the remaining 10% is essentially grass/unused space.

The question then becomes: What is a viable business venture that the mosque could embark on, which is likely to generate enough revenue to cover the expenses incurred by the Mosque? To answer this question, it is important to study the specific needs of the community in order to supply a demanded service.

Incidentally, there is only one ethnic food store in Burlington, and its inventory is extremely limited. As a result, the majority of Burlingtonians of South Asian and Arab descent (whom, as we’ve already established, make up the bulk of the Mosque’s congregation) end up driving anywhere between 15 km west or 20 km east in order to get their imported ethnic goods from stores that offer better varieties at more competitive prices. So here’s an idea: Why doesn’t the Halton Mosque add a few more walls to its east side and open an ethnic food store?

This idea is worthy of consideration for several important reasons. First, the store will have a guarantee of customer loyalty ab initio not only because of its convenient location, but also because the majority of congregants will be happy to know that their purchases are directly supporting their local Mosque. Second, the store will be frequented by non-Muslim residents surrounding the neighborhood, serving the wider community and possibly opening the door of da’wah. Third, since the store is owned by the Mosque, it can be used to distribute zakat to families with needs, as well as to subsidize grocery costs for the poor and even supply food drives. Fourth, it will provide employment opportunities for members of the community. Fifth…well, the list goes on.

Of course, an endeavor such as this will not be without obstacles. To start with, implementing such a project will not happen overnight, and will not be without red-tape. Certain complexities, including the legal hurdles of ownership, as well as the ramifications of owning a business (property and sales taxes, etc.) will have to be accounted for. In addition, staffing and supervising the store will require a separate administrative team of its own, equipped with competent managers and professional accountants. Finally, once established, the store will have to perform exceptionally well in order to cover its own costs, which can not be guaranteed.

Nevertheless, the merits of establishing self-sustainable Mosques are numerous, and in my opinion, completely outweigh the potential drawbacks and risks. You may disagree of course, and I would hope to hear your reasons. The point is, we seriously need to have this conversation.

Every community has different needs dictated by its own demographic and cultural make-up, as well as its geographic location. An ethnic food store may be the best idea for the Halton Mosque, but it could be a disastrous investment for an Islamic Center in Vermont. Maybe the need is greater for a women’s-only gym, or even a strip plaza. Maybe purchasing a piece of land and renting it out as public parking will do the trick. Or maybe not. I do not pretend to have all the solutions, and to be honest, I do not need to. Alhamdu li Allah, our community is replete with talented management consultants, urban planners, engineers of all varieties, and professionals with rich backgrounds in finance and accounting who have a collective ingenuity of an extremely high order.

Why don’t we bring these brilliant minds together and see what they can come up with?