Everyone, even the richest billionaire, has finite resources, while charities have endless needs. Accordingly all of us give to some charities while not giving to others. Your giving will be more effective if you have a strategic plan. To help think about such decisions, I explain how I decide which charities to support.
Posted 29 December 2015. Updated 21 February 2020.
Regardless of whether we give a little or a lot to charity, none of us can avoid having to choose between charities. Even if you decide to give away everything that you have, you will be giving a finite amount of money while there will be many thousands of charities to select from, each of which would happily receive every penny that you could give them.
The way that you decide how you give to charity will be based upon your personality and your general approach to life. Some people simply give a small amount to every charity that approaches them. Others, even if they have a large charity budget, are ruthlessly selective about the charitable causes that they support.
I am somewhere in between. However looking back on the numbers shows that I am at the selective end of the spectrum.
Our life history inevitably has a big impact on our decision making. A number of different things have contributed towards the charitable giving strategy that I adopt.
If you have a religious belief, it affects how you see almost everything.
As far as I can recall, I first met the story of Mary Magdalene and the anointing of Jesus at primary school. It appears in all four Gospels and I have reproduced one version below:
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, "Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor." But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Matthew 26:6-13 New Revised Standard Version
Even after a gap of almost 60 years, I recall that my first reaction was the same as that of the disciples. However Jesus's response with the phrase “you always have the poor with you” has never left me.
There is a famous narration in Tirmidhi’s collection about the eagerness of Abu Bakr (who later became the first caliph) to give to charity.
Narrated Zaid bin Aslam:
"I heard 'Umar bin Al-Khattab saying: 'We were ordered by the Messenger of Allah to give in charity, and that coincided with a time in which I had some wealth, so I said, "Today I will beat Abu Bakr, if ever I beat him."' So I came with half of my wealth, and the Messenger of Allah said: "What did you leave for your family?" I said: "The like of it." And Abu Bakr came with everything he had, so he said: "O Abu Bakr! What did you leave for your family?" He said: "I left Allah and His Messenger for them." I said: '[By Allah] I will never be able to beat him to something.'"
Jami` at-Tirmidhi English reference: Vol. 1, Book 46, Hadith 3674
Jami` at-Tirmidhi Arabic reference: Book 49, Hadith 4037
While the above story is often told by Muslims to encourage people to give to charity, Islam actually does not require Muslims to give 100% of what they own to charity. Instead there is an obligation to provide for your family, and indeed for yourself so that you do not become dependent upon the charity of others.
There is a whole section of Bukhari's collection of hadith devoted to this subject: Volume 7, Book 64 "Supporting the Family." To quote just one hadith:
The Prophet visited me at Mecca while I was ill. I said (to him), "I have property; May I bequeath all my property in Allah's Cause?" He said, "No." I said, "Half of it?" He said, "No." I said, "One third of it?" He said, "One-third (is alright), yet it is still too much, for you'd better leave your inheritors wealthy than leave them poor, begging of others. Whatever you spend will be considered a Sadaqa for you, even the mouthful of food you put in the mouth of your wife. Anyhow Allah may let you recover, so that some people may benefit by you and others be harmed by you."
Bukhari Volume 7, Book 64, Number 266:
That is why I budget my charitable giving, as explained on the page "Live within your means and give to charity."
When I was at school, I wanted to go to Cambridge, but knew nothing about the colleges. My school had a connection with Clare College as some of our pupils had gone there in previous years, so that is where I was advised to apply. It was only after arriving at the college at the age of 18 that I learned its history.
Clare is the second oldest college which is part of Cambridge University, founded in 1326 and “and generously endowed a few years later by Lady Elizabeth de Clare (Lady de Burgh), a granddaughter of King Edward I (1272-1307).”
I have never forgotten the story of Lady Clare. She was widowed three times before the age of 30, by which time she was one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, women in England. While there were many wealthy widows at that time, their names are long forgotten, while Lady Clare’s name lives on almost 700 years later because of her endowment of Clare College.
My parents both had no education. Because of that, they were totally committed to my being educated. That is why they jointly dragged me, one holding each arm, to nursery as soon as I became eligible to attend at the age of three. (I was dragged because I did not want to go!)
From my earliest memories, my parents were willing to sacrifice anything for my education.
One of my parents’ key messages was that education is something that nobody can ever take away from you. (This is a saying shared by Judaism and Islam.) It was particularly poignant because my parents' families on both sides had to leave their homes behind and become refugees into Pakistan from the Indian Punjab as a result of Partition.
Becoming educated transformed my life in every way. It enabled me to understand the world, changed my class status, and moved me from being very poor to being affluent.
Ever since I learned that free market capitalism is the best way to run an economy, I have understood what it takes to achieve economic growth, and what policies hold countries back from developing. For a short introduction, read my review of "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else" by Hernando de Soto.
I grew up as part of a very small Asian minority in the UK. That minority has grown over time, as have other ethnic minorities. In the 1950s there was widespread racial discrimination but this has reduced significantly over time due to a combination of legislation and changes in social attitudes, although it has not yet disappeared. (See "Is racial prejudice declining in Britain?" by Robert Ford, 2008.)
At the same time, starting with the Salman Rushdie "Satanic Verses" affair, I have observed some British Muslims engaging in behaviours that are simply counter-productive by any objective assessment. The challenges have increased with the growth of terrorism committed by Muslims both overseas and in the UK.
A very small minority of British Muslims actively seek to commit terrorism; a larger number (although still a small minority) share much of the outlook of the terrorists. Also too many of the large majority of British Muslims who are peaceful and law-abiding fail to display a coherent vision of what it means to be a Muslim citizen of Britain.
I do not have a formal set of rules for deciding which charities to give to. However I have summarised my approach below.
I do not give to animal charities. The simple reason is that there are so many human needs, and humans come before animals.
I do not believe that giving money to overseas countries assists their economic development.
The exception is aid which directly improves the governance of the country and helps to embed an understanding of free-market economics and the rule of law. As an illustration, after meeting Linda Whetstone (for her biography, visit the Islam & Liberty Network Council page and scroll down) at a political function, I have signed up to give Network for a Free Society £100 per year. I have also given it more significant one-off donations.
My exclusion of development charities extends to charities running schools in countries such as Pakistan. In my view the government of Pakistan and its citizens need to decide how to organise their education system and the proper balance between state provided schools (often inefficient or corrupt) and private schools. They also need to decide the proper balance between the government’s education budget (which is too small) and the government’s defence budget (which is too large). Any gift I make towards charitable schools in Pakistan will not help to address those issues.
When major disasters such as the Asian tsunami or the Kashmir earthquake or the Pakistan floods happen, I contribute to emergency relief since, by definition, there is an emergency.
As a consequence of the above views, most of my giving is to charities operating in the UK. As well as charities, I also give to organisations that are not legally charitable such as political parties and political campaigning organisations since their goals are also to make our country a better place.
There are many organisations which I support. They are listed on the “About Me” page of this website:
Some organisations I am involved with
When I look back at where the money goes, it is clear that my highest priority is education. The three largest gifts I have made are as follows:
Back in 1998 as part of a small group of parents I attended a presentation about the new Bursary Appeal by the High Master who was then Martin Stephen. I went there with the intention of giving a relatively small (in relation to my income) donation of around £5,000.
However the High Master spoke incredibly movingly about the difference that a bursary at Manchester Grammar School had made to the life of one Afro-Caribbean boy from a very disadvantaged family, eventually sending him to Oxford. The High Master's words were so moving that I started to cry, silently.
I walked out of the presentation with an undisclosed personal decision to endow one perpetual bursary which was specified by MGS at £100,000. The gift was implemented over six years in instalments at a total cost to me, after deducting tax relief, of £60,000.
One result of this gift was my name being included in the list of major Bursary Appeal donors on a wooden board just inside the school entrance. It is now carved in stone along with the names of other major donors outside the main entrance. That is important to me, but not because of any desire for publicity or recognition.
The reason why it is important to me is that my name is distinctively Muslim. Having a Muslim name amongst the donors gives a very strong message to every Muslim who sees it that we all have a duty to make our country and the institutions within it better. It also conveys the strong message to non-Muslims that British Muslims are an integral part of our undivided society.
Details of Manchester Grammar School's current appeal.
In 2006 Clare College launched a major appeal to build Lerner Court and the Gillespie Centre. Those two names arose from the very substantial donations from two individuals which commenced the appeal.
I committed to give £50,000 in stages (which I did over about four years). As a consequence the new passageway that was constructed between Lerner Court and Ashby Court has a plaque with my name and matriculation year on it.
My reason for not being anonymous is the same as with the Manchester Grammar School bursary.
The value of this was demonstrated shortly after the facilities were opened. In 2009 the first Mosaic International Summer School was held at Clare College with young Muslim delegates from many overseas countries as well as the UK. One of my friends was an instructor on the summer school. Afterwards he telephoned to check whether I was indeed the “Mohammed Amin (1969)” whose name was on the plaque. He explained that a number of the Muslim students on the Mosaic Summer School had noticed the plaque and commented on their pleasant surprise at finding a Muslim name in such a location.
How to donate to Clare College
I have been supporting this project since Matthew Wilkinson first came to me with the idea for it. I saw immediately that it had the potential to transform the education of every child, Muslim and non-Muslim, who attends a school in England. The project website www.curriculumforcohesion.org details the project so I will not repeat it here. However apart from my working career and raising my family, supporting the project is the most important thing I have ever done.
If I had not been able to give the first £31,000 in donations, the project would never have started. After it got going, other donors came on board but I am still the second largest donor with total donations up to the end of 2015 of just over £80,000.
Each of us needs to decide upon our own priorities. However I believe very strongly that if you are a citizen of a country, you have a very serious obligation to make that country into a better place for all of its citizens. Accordingly I believe that the primary charitable focus for all Britons, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, should be on UK oriented charities.
If anything this point is even stronger for Muslims who immigrated from overseas, like me, or who are descendants of immigrants. Muslims need to learn from the Jewish community in Britain when it comes to building the full range of community institutions.
I do support charities which have these goals. In particular, I am Chairman of the Council of the Islam & Liberty Network which promotes a Muslim case for freedom, in particular religious freedom, political freedom and economic freedom.
I also support Network for a Free Society whose mission is to make the texts and ideas which explore and explain the principles and values of a free society accessible in countries and languages where they are currently not available.
My view is strengthened by my belief that the problems of developing countries in Asia or Africa can only be solved by those countries themselves. The best we can do is give them good advice about matters such as economic policy, embedding democracy and the rule of law.
I give to education because that changes people’s life changes, and indeed changes their entire view of the world. I see the world completely differently from the way my parents did due to the education I received.
I am well aware of the religious teachings in Christianity and Islam about charitable giving in secret. Quite clearly if you are charitably giving to an individual, you should keep that secret to avoid embarrassing the recipient. Also, one should not have a boastful attitude to charitable giving.
Again, the words of Jesus come to mind:
"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
New Revised Standard Version Matthew 6:1-4.
The key message of the above extract is that it is wrong to publicise one's giving to seek the praise of others.
The same point is made in the Quran.
“The parable of those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing. They who spend their possessions for the sake of God and do not thereafter mar [Asad comments: Lit., "do not follow up"] their spending by stressing their own benevolence and hurting [the feelings of the needy] shall have their reward with their Sustainer, and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.
A kind word and the veiling of another's want is better than a charitable deed followed by hurt; and God is self-sufficient, forbearing.”
Quran 2:261-263 Muhammad Asad translation
However there can also be very good reasons for publicising charitable giving, (provided it does not hurt the feelings of any recipients) of which the most important is the encouragement of others. At the top end of the wealth scale the examples of Bill Gates of Microsoft and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway have clearly encouraged other billionaires to follow in their footsteps.
The same principle applies to people not as rich as these billionaires. If you explain to people which charities you support and why, including being open about how much you are giving, you are more likely to encourage others to also give.