Your Masjid is Not a Fortune 500 Company, Nor Should It Be

Being professional doesn’t mean being corporate.

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).

2) Competition

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 core principle for Islamic work is – “And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.

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.

 

About
Omar Usman is a project manager and leadership trainer. He has helped start a number of initiatives including MuslimMatters.org, Debt Free Muslims, and Qalam Institute. He regularly teaches seminars on topics such as the Fiqh of Social Media, Public speaking and Khateeb training, and personal development.
Showing 14 comments
  • Farhad
    Reply

    Salaams. I agree with the general thrust if the article and the implicit argument of intangible benefits not being quantifiable. One caution is that such arguments are also being used to justify complacency, lack of planning, failure to use metrics to determine progress (where relevant), little or no forecasting and general unprofessionalism under the banner of “trust in Allah”. What we need is Ihsan in the full scope of its meaning as states in the prophetic Hadith.

    Farhad.

    • Omar Usman
      Reply

      Agreed. There are a number articles on this website addressing the other points you’ve mentioned

  • Jalal Obaid
    Reply

    Br. Omar, with all due respect, although I agree with the general points you are making, just like Farhad pointed out, I’m afraid that your title and specific points can be taken out of context to essentially negate the majority of what muslimsi is all about. It seems like a nice slogan to say “your masjid is not a Fortune 500 company” but that’s really all that is. I don’t think the widespread issue these days is that board members are running masjids as corporations to bring profits. The wider issue is, as you yourself know and have the majority of your articles addressing, that masjid boards are NOT running with transparency, strategic planning, having goals and objectives and holding themselves accountable to those (good valuable goals ones like instituing more classes, more dawah programs, more social services, etc). This is how other non-profit organizations are run in America, and masajid should be looking more at doing those things. A non-profit does run much like a business except that any profits are kept to grow the organization and its programs and services, rather than go to shareholders’ pockets. There is nothing evil about being more business minded, because to most people in the context of a non-profit that simply means being more responsible in management– something that our masajid lack ridiculously. Giving them a pass on that is hardly what you intend to do, I’m sure of it because of your other inspiring articles that I know and love. So why do it just to make the case against mistreatment of imams? It seems to me that’s the real theme in your article here. Because you didn’t mention any other kind of masjid staff member other than an imam. An imam shouldn’t be held to strict meaningless metrics– agreed. But not all businesses use strict meaningless metrics, either. Using meaningless metrics is just plain stupid, even for a business. So mistreating imams is not synonymous with being business minded. What about the masjid accountant? Should we be more strict and business minded in making sure he gets all his reports done on time or writing down expenses rather than just getting the general job done, should we be more business minded in how we manage that human resource than the imam? It seems like the grievances here and even in some of the “crisis of imams” articles are all about imams being misunderstood, undervalued, or mistreated. That’s the bigger issue, it seems, than masjids being run like businesses. So lets keep the discussion on the imams, then. But even there, I think its oversimplified to put all the blame on the boards. I think it goes both ways. And a lot of times, both sides are well intended but the issue is that the imam isn’t a good fit to begin with. An imam may really just be a scholar and have no other expertise in leading the community, and it may be that the community AND the board both don’t think he’s a good fit, and that’s why he has to leave. Actually, one of the best things you said in one of your blogs was this: “Imams need to study a lot more than Islamic sciences. If you want to make a difference in the American Muslim life, you need to have clear understanding of management, public relations, civics, finances, and other needed fields of knowledge that will help you become the leader of your community and manage its affairs.” What if an imam gets hired who lacks those traits, and then he just doesn’t fit well? But in his frustration, he blames it on the board being too corporate, when in reality, it was a two way street and he also didn’t fit the bill. I hope you can be more fair here and not just be the voice of the disgruntled imam.

    • Omar Usman
      Reply

      I agree with the general premise of points. a couple of points id like to mention-

      -imams are always going to be a focus because of their importance and impact on the community. it can be argued that there is no figure more important

      -some of these mismanagement issues come from people trying to instill a corporate mentality in the name of professionalism. my response to this is 1) we need more experts in nonprofit management. and 2) while all those positive points are there that we can learn from business, we must turn away when some of those systems are in place for revenue maximization or competition mindset.

      -as you mentioned, i think this article taken in context with the other articles on the site makes the bigger picture clearer iA

      jazakallahu khayr!

  • Shahin
    Reply

    Salam. I am a strategist for my masjid here in Memphis and I do keep these points in mind when planning for my organization. However, would I share this with the board members to convince them of what I’m doing– probably not. Their thinking comes from another land! They would take it the wrong way and paint me In a very different light.

  • Aatif Ali Bokhari
    Reply

    Salaam. We’d love to republish your piece in The Muslim Observer; it hits on many important points. Please email me if you’re interested.

    All my best,
    Aatif Bokhari
    Managing Editor for The Muslim Observer

  • Jalal Obaid
    Reply

    Salaam.

    1) Agreed that imams are most important. Another aspect of the crisis of imams in America (other than, and perhaps even more important than, the fact that some masjid boards are not respecting or valuing their imams enough) is the fact that the imams who are being trained by Al-Azhar or other places that come to the USA, are just scholars, but don’t have other skillsets or training. We should be putting these Al-Azhar grads through some other American two year course or certification, perhaps, to make them better fits to lead communities and institutions. I still stand behind one of the things you said as being probably the most important thing you said: “Imams need to study a lot more than Islamic sciences. If you want to make a difference in the American Muslim life, you need to have clear understanding of management, public relations, civics, finances, and other needed fields of knowledge that will help you become the leader of your community and manage its affairs.” Thank you for that.

    2) Almost every aspect of responsible management will come from lessons taken from non-profit management (as you said) and even traits from the business world as well. Like you said, we just have to leave out the “revenue maximization or competition mindset” and have a stronger focus on ihsan and tawakkul and always being humble and having taqwa, turning to Allah, etc. But apart from that, the strategies of management from the nonprofit and business world are all needed badly. In fact, our biggest problem is that we aren’t taking those qualities from the business and nonprofit world enough, not that we are taking too many of them. It’s fine to qualify it and say that we should take all except revenue maximization and competition mindset, but we should be emphasizing more and more (with qualification) to be business minded rather than turning people away from it. This is the danger of your article taken out of context. And out of context shall it be…if it gets printed elsewhere to readers who haven’t seen your site. And there will the uncles who run the masjid like their old boys club or pakistani mafia get reinforced. We are living in a time when masjid boards don’t even know what it means to be a board member, how to sit through a meeting and be productive, how to facilitate meetings, how to have action items and follow through. They think being on a board is being entitled to talk and call shots.

    3) Perhaps we can just agree to disagree on what side needs more emphasis probably because of our differing experiences. You think there is too much business mindedness these days in masajid to the point of revenue maximization and competition– this is a rampant problem as you see it (and I ask, show me where this happens! count on one hand?). On the other hand, I think there is too little business mindedness to the point of masajid running like a family affair with no accountability, no planning, no living up to commitments made– and I think THIS is the REAL majority, rampant problem.

    4) However, what both arguments have in common is that they lead to something more important as the next logical point: we should probably return our focus to what’s most important, the imam. I think the imams do need to be held to a high standard, and still respected and valued at the same time. Lets look at the crisis in a balanced way. I think the imams should (and their boards should be letting them) think outside the box and focus more on visiting the sick, making an impact, rather than just meeting a checklist of leading x number of prayers. But there are imams who aren’t doing either of these things and are failing miserably at leading their organizations, and its not all the boards’ fault or even their fault. It is a problem of training. The imams being trained overseas need to perhaps take a “minor in masjid and community leadership” added to their “major in fiqh and shariah.”

    • Omar Usman
      Reply

      Jazakallahu khayr – i think the crux of whatever disagreement there is boils down to “if this article is taken out of context”

      One article cannot address everything. The entire body of work on this website (with this article included) i think paint a clear picture in this regards – and in reality we probably don’t disagree on much.

      And if someone takes this article in isolation.. let’s hope if they love it, they’ll come back and visit the site to read more 🙂

  • Zakaria
    Reply

    Hello,

    I’ve been very impressed and fascinated by this blog/website. It’s unfortunate that the coperate mentality is being instilled in the name of professionalism. I pray for the well being of the founder of this blog. You’ve complied a great work! If you ever come to Ottawa, Canada your stay is on me!

  • Abdul Majid
    Reply

    Imam should be empowered to have leadership role will benefit overall.
    Especially younger imam is an asset to younger generation and community on the whole.You may not see the results right away but it is investment in the future which will pay off in the long run.

  • NG
    Reply

    Recommend the book The Corporation which also offers valid points to add to this discussion.

pingbacks / trackbacks

Leave a Comment

Contact Us

Send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text.

Start typing and press Enter to search