Accreditation program offered for Muslim charities

August 13, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

With the holy month of Ramadan approaching, two organizations have joined forces to help raise the bar on accountability and transparency for Muslim charities in the U.S.

Muslim Advocates, a San Francisco-based legal and civic education organization, and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance announced today a voluntary accreditation initiative to help Muslim charities in the United States. Ramadan, which begins Sept. 2, is the annual giving period for Muslims.

Through its standards of accountability and transparency, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance provides Americans with information they need to make informed giving decisions, said President and CEO H. Art Taylor.

Charities do the “essential work that is the engine of our Democratic society,” said Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates. Since 2001, the government has turned a microscope on Muslim charities, she said, spawning fear and confusion among donors and volunteers. Combining the experience of the Alliance with the legal expertise of Muslim Advocates is a smart, practical solution to dispelling that confusion and fear, said Khera.

Khera described the program as a “road map for Muslim nonprofit leaders,” ensuring proper oversight of an organization’s cash flow and activities. “This type of rigor leads to greater accountability internally, and more transparency,” she said, ultimately building confidence in donors, volunteers, as well as strengthening the Muslim nonprofit sector and the broader nonprofit sector.

Muslim Advocates and the Arlington, Va.-based Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance will provide free services to organizations that choose to participate in this initiative. Muslim Advocates’ network of attorneys, accountants and other experts will work with charities to assess their current practices, identify information needed for review by the Alliance, and offer advice on how to meet the Alliance’s 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

Seven charities in Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco and Cincinnati already have agreed to take part in the evaluation and accreditation program.

Evaluations by the Alliance usually are initiated because donors ask them about particular charities, according to Taylor. In this case, Muslim Advocates has come forward and offered to help the Alliance reach charities that want to be evaluated. “This is an important distinction from our normal practice,” Taylor said. “Very few organizations actually come to us voluntarily to be evaluated. In this case, we have a group of organizations that are committed to transparency that have come to us indicating their desire to be vetted and posted on our website,” he said.

In the end, Taylor said, this will give American donors much more information about the operations of these organizations, and show transparency and an overall willingness to share their work with those concerned.

Khera said indications from Department of Treasury officials have been very encouraging about the initiative. A key desire of the Treasury Department the last few years, she said, has been to encourage greater transparency and accountability in the nonprofit sector, including Muslim charities.

The seven charities that have started the application process come from a variety of subsectors and Khera hopes to have several complete their reviews by the end of this year. Taylor said the evaluation process is “quite rigorous” and it often takes new organizations longer to complete their first time. Most nonprofits don’t meet the standards initially, he added, and must make adjustments in their practices to meet the standards.

Muslim Advocates will host educational seminars about the initiative this fall in eight cities: San Francisco; New York; Los Angeles; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Tampa; Chicago, and Houston. Seminars will advise Muslim charities on how to improve their governance, increase transparency, and ensure legal compliance with anti-terror financing laws and regulations, and other issues. “Our plan is to use those as catalyst to educate nonprofit leaders about the program, the standards, and recruit more folks to go through the evaluation process,” Khera said.

There are more than 1 million charities and nonprofits in the U.S., but it’s unclear how many are Muslim charities. “We have not seen any good studies on that but we know there’s certainly a lot,” said Khera, guessing that there are hundreds of mosques and charitable organizations doing good.