This is a myth being perpetuated in our community – one that I fell for myself.
Inherently, it cannot be the case. Islamic work, by definition, is non-profit. Corporate work, by definition, is for maximization of profit.
Before continuing, one objection must be addressed, and that is the existence of “for-profit” Muslim enterprises or institutions. In these cases, the nature of the work dictates the underlying values of an organization. A Muslim business that sells lotas, for example, would be for maximization of profit. It is difficult to envision a scenario where they might go around donating lotas, distributing free lotas to increase lota awareness, or ask the community for good-faith contributions to help fund lota research and development.
An Islamic organization may choose to utilize a “for profit” status in terms of legal and tax filings – but if the nature of the work is community oriented, the general mode of business is still in the non-profit arena. This would include things like educational services, counseling services, or even in some case humanitarian ones. In other words, the bottom line is the proliferation of a service as opposed to maximization of profit.
It is easy to look at corporate models as an ideal. There are clearly defined hierarchies. There are analytical metrics to quantitatively judge performance and success. Investors must see direct returns.
Nonprofit work is messier. Results cannot necessarily be measured every quarter – it might take 25 years to see results. Investors may not see returns until the next life.
This is why universities offer different courses of study for an MBA, or a Master’s in Non-Profit Management. They’re just different. Here are a few ways they are different that are important for Muslims in administration capacities to understand:
1) Human Capital vs. Commoditization
Human capital is the lifeblood of community work. There is nothing that can replace a good imam, youth director, or teacher. Community leaders are highly sought after due to the value they provide to their congregations.
The corporate mindset is to commoditize the Islamic worker. This is where boards begin to demand things like “must deliver 50/52 khutbahs a year, must hold programs with at least X number of people in attendance,” and so on. It shifts the focus from the human element of interaction to creating a system where everyone is replaceable if certain metrics are not met.
The most unfortunate consequence is that this type of commoditization is passed off as succession planning or sustainability. Community work cannot be measured on these types of metrics. How do you quantify the value of a person growing up for 15 years under the spiritual guidance of their local imam, going to him for issues when confused or faced with difficulty, and growing up as a strong confident Muslim? It’s difficult, and that’s why lazy (or corporate) boards fall back on metrics like “must be there for Isha salah 5 minutes before iqamah 363/365 days a year.” This is what creates inflexibility of community leaders being able to attend programs such as MSA and interfaith talks – in order to meet corporate style requirements.
A community leader or teacher that provides counsel, direction, and education cannot simply be considered another employee (which is what the corporate mindset dictates).
The corporate mindset is entrenched in competition. Everything is focused on talking points like market share. The underlying attitude is that of a scarcity mentality. If another Islamic center opens up within 10 miles, fundraising dollars will be lost. If our Imam employee speaks on another platform, teaches for another organization, or even helps anyone else – he is violating his loyalty to our organization or institution.
Institutes will focus on how to draw students away from one program and funnel them into theirs (in order to maximize revenues, not benefit).
The moment another Islamic organization, school, or masjid is seen as competition – you’ve lost the plot.
Complement one another, help one another – the end goal should be the same.
3) Revenues and Barakah
There is no concept of sacrifice in the corporate arena. Every dollar spent must show a calculated return. Even investing in an employee’s education comes with an expected return – otherwise they wouldn’t stay in business.
Islamic nonprofit work requires having some level of reliance in Allah (swt) [tawakkul]. This is not to say finances should not be watched – but it means that not every financial decision can be quantified with such a quantifiable return on investment in the financial sense. How do you value the return on $20 spent on lunch with a young member of the community who is struggling with their faith?
Yes, there are corporate equivalents. Ultimately, they are all tied to some kind of return. A budget allocated to entertaining prospective clients still comes with an expectation of a larger return via sales. Dawah work doesn’t have such a tight lead generation and conversion metric that a consultant can throw on an Excel spreadsheet. What if a $100 Islamic class changes someone’s life?
How do you value a khateeb that inspires just one person to return to practicing their faith after 3 years of regular talks – slowly chipping away? If performance is judged solely on tuitions collected and revenues generated – instead of lives touched, value added, or impact made – then we’ve again lost the bigger picture.
Corporate financial math ignores the key multiplier coefficient of barakah.
Corporate thinking has its place – in business. There are many great corporations and lessons to be learned from them (every organization can learn a thing or two from Apple, Google, and even sports franchises). These lessons cannot permeate their way into the management of Islamic organizations to such an extent that they trump our Islamic values, the respect we give our teachers, the human element of Islamic work, and the ultimate end goal of what we are trying to achieve.
This article first appeared in Muslim Strategic Initiative.