Tayba and Conflicts of Interest Zakat
Services are needed, but donors should demand more.
Tayba Foundation is an organization focused on supporting prisoners and those in re-entry. They help with job skills, life training and Islamic education. It is obviously a noble mission. Tayba is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and is headed by Sh. Rami Nsour, who maintains consolidated control as founder, CEO and chairman of the Board of Directors. For most everyone who knows Tayba, Sh. Rami Nsour is indistinguishable from the organization. This review is limited to their zakat programs.
Sh. Rami Nsour has written a detailed zakat policy that has far exceeded what nearly all other American Muslim organizations have done in the Muslim non-profit space (one of my main reasons for wanting to write about it).
It is not my place to make fiqh rulings or determine if a zakat policy is right or wrong. However, it is my goal that prospective donors to potentially zakat-eligible projects understand what they are paying for when they donate. Sh. Rami, to his credit, did share the zakat policy with me and it is incorporated into my analysis.
Donations to be given out as cash
Under Tayba’s zakat policies, if you want your zakat to be given out in cash, they are supposed to give the zakat in cash to rightful recipients in the United States. I checked the online donation form, and this option does not exist. It is possible that a donor can make a comment on the instructions and ask they distribute the zakat in cash (say to a commissary account or for the benefit of an incarcerated Muslim’s family).
100% Zakat Compliance
The policy states “[t]he most important thing is 100% zakat compliance.” The organization actively encourages and solicits zakat donations. Very likely most of its revenue, outside of government grants, comes from zakat contributions. How then does Tayba pay for its overhead, including salaries and adjacent costs? To understand this, you should learn about the “Wakala” system.
You see, a prison education program is not in and of itself, “zakat-eligible.” It is not one of the categories of zakat in the Quran. An indigent person in prison is zakat-eligible. So, you can offer an indigent person an opportunity to get money or services, and maybe they will opt for educational services.
How the Wakala system works for Tayba
The system adopted by Tayba is known to anyone who knows how zakat may work for Islamic educational institutions around the world, or even organizations that feed the hungry, may understand how this works. According to its policy, Tayba follows the Hanafi school, but non-Muslims are served through a Maliki school’s ruling.
In the Wakala system, it’s ok to transfer zakat funds in Tayba’s left pocket and put it in its right pocket, where it is no longer zakat, because something happened in the interim. It is not a concern that Tayba can pay itself with zakat funds, the concern for donors is what that “something” is, and is it truly a fair exchange?
Hazards of the Wakala System of Zakat Distribution
Say you give zakat to a bookseller. They don’t know how to do anything except sell books, but they don’t mind taking zakat and using it to give books away. What if the indigent person needs to feed his family, educate his children with books not in this bookseller’s catalog?
What we have is a conflict of interest. This is like a conflict of interest that exists in financial services, where an advisor recommends in-house products over what may be superior options in terms of price and quality.
This is the potential donor concern with Tayba’s zakat model. The organization itself can set costs incurred by the zakat-eligible individual and pay itself with seemingly no controls at all. So Tayba can “sell” books and teaching services using zakat funds to prisoners with a margin not governed by the zakat policy. The policy does limit Tayba to a “market” price, but if a seller has a monopoly on a product (nobody else sells a Tayba course), the “market price” is whatever the seller says it is.
This article is by no means a book review, but I wanted to assess the quality of Tayba’s products for this article. There are valid reasons for Tayba’s books to be “proprietary”- since they have an educational curriculum. Tayba operates a correspondence-based education program. Some of the material includes professionally edited works reprinted with the author’s permission, though this is generally mixed in with Sh. Rami Nsour’s own inclusions.
I purchased three of Tayba’s books on Amazon last year. They are available for $25 each. Each Tayba course costs $225 for the student, which, according to Tayba “will include (but is not limited to) books, CDs, DVDs, and articles, related costs of shipping or sales tax.” So I did not get the full experience. Each student going through the curriculum will take about 10 courses, plus a final assignment.2 That is about $2,250 in Zakat for a prisoner, not including the final assignment.
Some of the material was wanting and could have used an editor. In some instances, Tayba includes what looks like a copy of a copy of a copy, and material illegible and practically useless.
Here is one example of a page where I found the content unclear.
In some cases, there are what appear to be streams of consciousness passages that are difficult to follow. The writing by the chairman and executive director could have benefited from an editor and perhaps an editorial committee. This is of course the case with any writer. I have been guilty of publishing content without an editor, and it typically does not look great.
Tayba as an organization tends to revolve mostly around a single personality, Sh Rami Nsour. Structurally, a zakat-collecting organization should have more accountability than this. An organization could usually benefit from having people capable of telling the CEO that something is a bad idea, or that portions of a book given to zakat-recipients are not legible. It is not evident Tayba has this capacity since the CEO can oversee himself. Consolidated control of a nonprofit organization should always make donors nervous. It is not by itself a reason to withhold supporting an otherwise good cause, but with Tayba, quality has visibly suffered.
There is no doubt Tayba’s overall mission is good, and the people it seeks to serve need support. They will do well to fix the conflict of interest and consolidated control problems.
I don’t question zakat-eligibility here. That the organization has more work to do is not a strike against them. They should work more aggressively on internal accountability and quality control for the products they distribute with zakat funds. It would also be a wonderful option to allow zakat donors the opportunity to donate directly to those in need Tayba encounters, as their zakat policy already states. However, this option should be available for everyone who is Zakat-eligible, regardless of specific donor instructions.
Lastly, Tayba should create a separate zakat accounting and make it public, so donors have an understanding of how zakat-funds are handled. This should be standard for any organization that handles zakat, but something we rarely see with American Muslims.
This is a link to the public-facing zakat policy and is different from what was provided to me last year.
Fiqh 112, Five Pillars (Hanafi) Published by the Tayra Foundation, Page 149.