Launchgood’s “Zakat-Verified” is Worthless. Don’t Trust it.
It's a lot less than it seems.
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Launchgood (LG) is not a charity. It is a commercial enterprise focused on “crowdfunding” for the Muslim community. It is focused heavily on charitable giving, though donations are often not going to be tax deductible in the United States.
LG is a popular platform for the Muslim influencer class, as well as for ordinary Muslims who may have a project or needs for which they would like to raise money using their own social network. The website’s self-service system creates “gamified” fundraising campaigns, in which expected psychological rewards and dopamine surges influence people to donate.
While there is much that can be said about this business, its history, and its model within the Muslim community, what most concerns this article is LG’s interest in zakat.
What is “Zakat-Verified”?
In the last couple of years, LG launched a “zakat-verified” program in which Islamic scholars, using criteria outlined in a written “zakat policy,” vet the charities and causes seeking to use LG’s platform. Sounds good right?
Well, there is more.
· Nobody at LG vets the organization, its purpose, or finances for zakat purposes, from what I can gather.
· The two shuyukh cited as LG’s shariʿa scholars, Yaser Birjas and Joe Bradford, are not involved with the organization, despite LG still using their names to boost the program’s legitimacy (they only initially helped the organization with the verification project). The scholars never took any responsibility for verifying the underlying charitable organization's zakat eligibility. This might surprise you. Shaykh Yaser Birjas clarified to me that this was Launchgood’s job which, as you will note below, they are not doing.
The Zakat Policy
According to the LG zakat policy, the poor and needy are eligible for zakat, as are travelers (which is defined). These categories are easy to define and are not problematic in the policy. The category for those in debt is well thought out in the policy, as is a category for “capital projects and operational costs” (not a separate category in the Quran but it’s good to know). It also notes freeing slaves is a category that has not been subject to any campaigns on LG.
The categories of “Administrators of Zakat,” “softening the hearts” and “in Allah’s path” are essentially places that don’t have concrete written policies. For “Administering Zakat”, LG’s policy and implementation is bizarre. The policy claims that in the shariʿa no more than 12.5% of the gross zakat funds collected should be used for paying those employed in administering and distributing zakat. While I’m sure some scholars may disagree, that’s the good part.
It then claims that since LG is so busy, it cannot verify compliance on this. From my own view of the LG system for creating campaigns, LG does not even ask if the organization adheres to this policy. They do, however, offer the option of all the zakat to be distributed for the purpose of administering zakat, which appears to be an invitation to violate its own stated policies.
For the other zakat categories, “softening of the hearts” and “in Allah’s path” are vaguely written, but both subject to scholar for verification. According to Sh. Yaser Birjas though (communicated by email), the “softening the hearts” category should only be for “new Muslim’s personal assistance or Muslims in missionary zones.”
Also according to Sh. Yaser Birjas the “in Allah’s Path” interpretation is conservative (despite the vague wording in the policy), and when Shaykhs Yaser Birjas and Joe Bradford were involved, requests under this category were not approved for any purpose presented to them. I have written extensively in the past about Muslim charities using “fi sabillillah” as a wastebasket category often used to abuse zakat. At present, it seems easy to make abusive zakat requests on LG.
Who is Watching the Store?
While the website claims their Zakat advisors are Shaykhs Yaser Birjas and Joe Bradford, neither is affiliated with the website. Aarij Anwar’s twitter profile claims to be zakat advisor for LG, though the website has not yet acknowledged this. Unfortunately, Anwar did not respond to my email query.
I do have some questions on how Muslims are getting duped into believing certain causes are “zakat-verified” by Islamic scholars when that is extremely unlikely.
How to Stop Child Marriages, with Zakat
One “zakat-verified” campaign hosted by LG is “Too Young to Wed.” This is a 501(c)(3) organization claiming that it will help prevent the sale of 8-year-old girls being sold into marriage in Afghanistan. A minor problem is that “Too Young to Wed” has no discernable connection to Islam or the Muslim community and does not itself accept zakat even on its own website. It’s not even an option there. They never bothered verifying themselves.
The organization’s work mostly involves helping in immigration cases (which they stopped doing) and giving grants to organizations like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, based in Pasadena, California. Southern California seems to be a suboptimal place from which to stop child marriages in Afghanistan, though to be fair, that is not one of the group’s stated goals.
Help Israelis make Palestinians more Peaceful
This is a fantastic example of LG utilizing the “softening the hearts” category of zakat. The donations go to Friends of Roots. Friends of Roots is a non-Muslim organization. They want to build peace and understanding, by doing things like “pre-army academies” for Israelis to understand “Palestinian and settlers’ narratives” before joining the Israeli army. The organization also arranges interfaith gatherings of various sorts.
This is zakat for a non-Muslim organization to carry out their programmatic priorities. In an American Muslim charitable landscape filled with abusive zakat fundraising schemes, this one seems to stand out. This charming grift and insult to Muslim worship is unlikely to happen without LG’s endorsement.
Fi Sabilil Whatever
Every year, we find more examples of Muslim organizations willing to collect zakat for just about anything. They do this by interpreting “in the cause of Allah” into some sort of variation of “if it feels good, do it.” LG’s model involves encouraging people to get on their website and raise money for anything, leveraging everyone’s personal connections and social networks to get on their website. The zakat-verified badge is a way to encourage people to donate, since many Muslims have a number in their head that must be donated, hopefully in Ramadan. Why let the absurdity of the zakat use case be a reason to leave that money on the table?
This year, they have, for example, someone raising zakat to fund their YouTube channel (“Please like, subscribe, smash the notification button and give us zakat!”). Another is a political group focused on Democratic Party priorities on Capitol Hill, supporting the Biden Administration’s agenda. Apparently you can use your zakat to help Democrats win.
As I noted previously, LG’s former “Zakat Advisors” (who are wrongly listed as current Zakat Advisors) would likely not approve of such uses. This clearly hasn’t stopped LG.
Next Time, Launch Better
There is no reason to donate your zakat through LG. They do not have a trustworthy process for verifying zakat-eligible campaigns.
The purpose of this newsletter is to help Muslims worship better with their wealth. None of us would be willing to pray on a soiled carpet, but American Muslims are often more than willing to donate our zakat, and thus worship, in as mediocre a way as possible. While Launchgood no doubt has some worthy causes, it is a great showcase of some of the worst American Muslim giving practices. LG has no way of distinguishing worthy causes from insulting ones.
We can do better.