Giving is deeply rooted in Arab culture. A powerful sense of shared responsibility and the need to help others has sustained and empowered newly transplanted and longstanding Arab American communities in the United States.
While Arab culture stresses the importance of charity, individual giving is often made to family members or a religious institution, however. Arab Americans have only recently embraced formal strategic philanthropy as a tool for community empowerment.
Philanthropy is about more than giving for personal satisfaction and individual growth. It is about strength for the community as a whole. Unfortunately, the broader community in the United States does not always recognize Arab Americans as generous participants in society through the giving of our time, talent, and treasure.
In addition to negative public perception of Arab Americans, there are other barriers as well, such as divisions within the community and a lack of understanding about strategic giving. Foundations are a fairly new development in the Middle East, and there is also a general misconception that philanthropy is only for the extremely wealthy.
Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, some donors were afraid to identify as Arab American, associate with Arab American organizations, or celebrate their identity because of the increased scrutiny put on Arab organizations and those associated with them. Some donors stopped giving altogether. That was a defining moment for our community, and was when I realized we must create a program that highlights our philanthropic contributions to society.
Despite barriers, Arab Americans give generously to a variety of causes, both in the United States and around the world. Our contributions provide funding for education, health services and research, international aid, arts and culture, youth leadership programs, advocacy, and more.
Many Arab Americans, particularly recent immigrants and first generation, still have a strong tie to their home country. Diaspora giving is very popular, mainly to places such as Lebanon and Palestine, where there is a large immigrant population in the United States. While much of this giving is done through non-formal channels, strategic giving is growing, particularly through donor-advised funds and other formal methods, as well as online campaigns for humanitarian aid or disaster relief causes in the United States. The Arab American diaspora community also frequently supports educational institutions in the Middle East, such as Lebanese American University and American University of Beirut.
Arab American donors often look for chances to leverage their giving with others for greater impact, such as through match campaigns, giving circles, or other types of “pooled” opportunities. Through giving circles, a group of individuals come together, pool their money, and vote on organizations to make grants as a group. These are growing in popularity among young professionals and women.
The Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP) released a report in 2006 titled “Insights on Arab American Giving” that found that Arab Americans consider the following factors when making a contribution:
- Their level of trust and personal relationship with organizations before giving;
- The type of organization, including non-Arab organizations, Arab American organizations, and international causes;
- The causes that are closest to their hearts, including education, youth development, humanitarian aid, and religious institutions; and,
- The leadership, accountability, programs, and reputation of the organization.
Here are a few ways you can engage the Arab American community in philanthropy:
- Have a clear understanding that Arab Americans are a very diverse population. There are 22 countries in the Middle East to which Arab Americans can trace their roots. Some Arab Americans are Christian; some are Muslim. Some are recent immigrants to America, while others have resided in this country for generations. Just like with any other community, philanthropy is very personal for Arab Americans. There is not one set of rules for engaging us in giving.
- Partner with local Arab American organizations in your area to get to know members of the community. You can find out more information about some Arab American organizations at www.nnaac.org.
- Arab Americans want to trust an organization before contributing, so make sure your organization’s website is up-to-date and clear, your financial information is transparent, and staff contact information is easily accessible.
We still have a long way to go, but Arab Americans are slowly being recognized for their philanthropic efforts. Arab American giving is growing, making a real impact and changing the world.
Maha Freij is the deputy executive director and chief financial officer of ACCESS, a 42-year-old human services organization in Dearborn, Mich. She is also the founder of the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), a project of ACCESS founded in 2006. CAAP is the only national ethnic fund in the Arab American communit. It and helps Arab Americans to be more strategic in their giving through education, asset-building and grantmaking. CAAP is dedicated to building a positive legacy of Arab American giving, shaping the future of our society through the collective power of our philanthropy and empowering the community to be change-makers and community-builders. Please visit www.centeraap.org