Mission and Effectiveness
Uplift Charity is a Southern California-based charitable organization that focuses on families in its region. It is an organization Muslim donors and nonprofits should get to know, just to understand what is possible.
The mission of the organization is to help local families in need. As I have written about previously, Zakat for American Muslims is increasingly a transferal of wealth from the affluent to the affluent. Instead of being a credit to the Muslim community, we are allowing Zakat to be an inditement of us. There are exceptions though, and Uplift Charity is one of them.
One of the main criteria used for evaluation of a charity is if donating is an act of worship. For many nonprofits, this is often not clear, sometimes not even to people who work with the organization. We don’t have this problem with Uplift. It has a mission in line with zakat donors. We do our worship with ehsan by making sure we are doing it as best as we can, and going to an organization committed to doing the best they can helps.
What the organization does is simple. They aid families with rent, education, food, transportation, furniture with an aim towards helping families reach self-sufficiency. Within the Southern California community, they have been the go-to organization for Zakat donations, and many Muslims need help know to go to them when they need it.
This organization solves problems that exist with donating zakat to nonprofits. The first is that if you contribute to an organization with a mission other than helping those in need, then those in need will always be secondary if they are even a consideration at all.
Another major problem with zakat donations to a nonprofit is that regardless of an organization's mission, the primary mission of any nonprofit organization is usually the organization itself, growing itself and sustaining itself. The task for many nonprofit organizations is to build an empire. You won’t see Uplift looking for national security focused government grants (really government grants of any kind). They don’t put themselves in a position where they need to compromise their principles, since they are not interested in money for themselves to grow.
Uplift differentiates itself by not constantly raising money and building up for its own sake, or hunting for grants from foundations that don’t care about Muslims or Islam. The organization is here to help local families. In many ways, the organization serves as a model for what zakat collecting nonprofits should be. They center those in need to fulfill those needs, not themselves or some other ancillary mission. The organization only recently identified the names of board members on their website because I told them I would be commenting on the issue in the transparency section of my review. They had avoided this to avoid making it about themselves. The board members' names were always available through public filings.
Anyone who reads this newsletter or has seen my various articles knows much is wrong with the Muslim nonprofit space. As a donor, you want to make sure your dollars are used in the most effective way possible so that they can make the most meaning for people. For zakat, you are looking to worship, you are not looking at feeding a corporate empire-building project. Your aim is simple: You have wealth, and there are people in need. Donate to an organization that helps people in need. Uplift fits as a way for you to fulfill your third pillar of Islam.
Social Benefit Score
The organization has operated transparently within the Southern California community for a decade and a half, at least as much as their leadership has been visible and has actively cultivated volunteers and community involvement. They maintain a website with ample information about what they do and their activities and have been current with their form 990s with the IRS. They have also been big on getting community members to volunteer with their various projects.
In preparation for this review, I did bring up the issue that they were delinquent in reporting with the California Attorney General; this was a clerical error that they are remedying.
I was able to discuss the organization's operations and procedures extensively in preparation for this review. I never got the impression they are trying to hide anything.
The organization is board run. Functionally the CEO is Owaiz Dadabhoy, though he retains the title of President of the Board. Dadabhoy is a well-known Muslim community leader in Southern California. He is a former chair of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, though his day job is with Amana Mutual Funds.
As I have noted previously, I prefer separation between executive leadership and the board, to avoid consolidation of power. I understand many nonprofits have executive leaders on the board, and in the case of smaller organizations, it may be a necessity.
One of the primary reasons this is not a significant problem, in this case, is that this is a local charity that primarily distributes zakat locally, and it relies heavily on volunteers by design. Dadabhoy has earned the ongoing trust of the community over the years. There are notable people on the board of directors that help instill confidence in this leadership.
This is a service organization, a group of volunteers (though they do have staff), and not an organization seeking to execute a grand strategy for world domination. The leadership under these circumstances is exemplary. While in other kinds of organizations I would remove stars for lack of a dedicated professional CEO, I don’t do that here.
Executive Leadership Score
One distinguishing feature of this organization is that a few members of the Dadabhoy family on the board of directors, a reflection perhaps of its founding. I would prefer to see more diversity among the board over the long term, in the various ways that word has meaning. Uplift is is not however governed and regulated as a "family foundation." It is a public charity. While family membership seems to play a part in governance most board members are independent.
Among the more essential board members is Sh. Mustafa Umar, an Imam at the Islamic Institute of Orange County and a prolific teacher. Umar is perhaps disproportionately influential on Zakat policies; his presence also should give donors confidence in how Uplift spends zakat funds. I know Sh. Mustafa Umar is a stickler on these issues.
The organization has provided a good breakdown of how it spends the money it receives in its 990 filings. The lion's share of what it does is provide living assistance. They have also reported meaningful "in-kind assistance,"- which is non-cash. In-kind is where a person donates a sofa or bed, and they provide this to a family in need.
While the organization has non-executive staff, the organization is overwhelmingly volunteer-run.
There does not appear to be any cause of concern based on what I have seen.
If you believe zakat is the right of the poor, Uplift is a solid place to donate. They have a policy of donating 100% for Zakat purposes. You can (and should) donate sadaqah as well since they do have non-zakat eligible bills to pay. Muslim nonprofit organizations come in a few other varieties. Those who ignore zakat's purposes completely and assume everything under the sun is "Zakat-eligible," and others think about zakat mostly in terms of loopholes that prevent those in need from benefiting from as much zakat as possible.
Unfortunately, I have found the “100% Zakat distribution policy” in other nonprofits can be meaningless and best or fakery at worst (I will be reviewing organizations like that in the future). The hunt for loopholes with other organizations from "serious" zakat-eligible organizations can come through creative accounting. One way of doing this is to create "transactions" between a Zakat-eligible and non-Zakat eligible account in the same organization, with a contrived profit going to the non-Zakat eligible part of the ledger to pay for overhead. This trick is an easy way for charities to say they have a 100% Zakat distribution policy when they do not (it’s also not the only method). Because of these games, fundraisers from from charities that explicitly charge expenses on zakat have attempted to convince donors that a 100% zakat distribution policy is a myth, really just a marketing gimmick.
While those fundraisers may have a point when it comes to some charities, Uplift Charity does not do gimmick zakat distribution. It is a sacred responsibility their leadership takes seriously. They also will not sell in-kind contributions even if donors did not explicitly donate them as zakat. They will give those things away to people who need them.
You can donate to Uplift Charity in sadaqah, separate from your zakat.
Zakat Policy Score
The organization is composed of individuals doing this work as an act of worship. Zakat is not something for them or their employees, even to run their operation. It is for the poor. They take their role as custodians of our acts of worship seriously, and nothing I have seen has given me a moment to think otherwise.
It is shockingly rare to see a Muslim nonprofit that takes zakat as seriously as Uplift. My score here is largely based on their handling of zakat.
While this newsletter highlights bad actors in the Muslim nonprofit space, it is essential to highlight organizations that strive to do what they do well. If you take your zakat seriously, you should take where you donate your zakat seriously as well.
I understand those who read this and do not live in Southern California may prefer to donate to an organization that benefits those in need in their local area (along with international relief and so forth). If an organization like Uplift exists in your local area, leave a comment identifying the organization and why you believe they are exemplary in handling zakat in particular.
If your local area does not have a charity like Uplift, you should reach out to them and learn how to develop such an organization for the benefit of your community.
Note and reminder: This newsletter has a conflict of interest policy you can read here.