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In order to offer Muslim donors a way to give their annual religious tithing (zakat) to an EA-aligned intervention, GiveDirectly launched a zakat-compliant fund, delivered as cash to Yemeni families displaced by the civil war. Muslims give ~$600B/year in Zakat to the global poor, though much of this is given informally or to less-than-effective NGOs.[1] 

Through this unconditional cash transfer option, we’re offering Muslims the opportunity to redirect a portion of their giving to a measurably high-impact intervention and introduce more Muslims to EA’s theory of effective giving. We invite readers to share thoughts in the comments and to share the campaign far and wide.

Muslims are the fastest-growing religious group and give annually

As Ahmed Ghoor observed, Muslims make up about 24% of the world population (1.8B people) and Islam is the fastest growing religion. Despite having a robust tradition of charitable giving, little has been done proactively to engage the Muslim community on the ideas of effective altruism. An important step to inclusion is offering this pathway for effectively donating zakat. 

Zakat is a sacred pillar of Islam, a large portion of which is given to the needy 

For non-Muslim readers: one of the five pillars of Islam, zakat is mandatory giving; Muslims eligible to pay it donate at least 2.5% of their accumulated wealth annually for the benefit of the poor, destitute, and others – classified as mustahik.[2] Some key points:

  1. A major cited aim of Zakat is to provide relief from and ultimately eradicate poverty.[3]
  2. It is generally held that zakat can only be given to other Muslims.[4]
  3. A large portion of zakat is given informally person-to-person or through mosques and Islamic charities.[5] 
  4. Zakat is a sacred form of charity; it’s most often given during the holy month of Ramadan.

Direct cash transfers are a neglected zakat option 

Zakat giving is estimated at $1.8B in the U.S. alone with $450M going to international NGOs, who mostly use their funds for in-kind support like food, tents, and clothing.[5] Dr. Shahrul Hussain, an Islamic scholar, argues that cash transfers “should be considered a primary method of zakat distribution,”  as, according to the Islamic principle of tamlīk (ownership), the recipients of the zakat have total ownership over the money, and it is up to them (not an intermediary third-party organization or charity) how it is spent. He also notes “the immense benefits of unconditional cash transfer in comparison to in-kind transfer." 

This is a simple, transparent means of transferring wealth that empowers the recipients. However, other than informal person-to-person giving, there are limited options to give zakat as 100% unconditional cash. 

GiveDirectly now allows zakat to be given as cash to Muslims in extreme poverty 

As an opportunity for Muslims to donate zakat directly as cash, GiveDirectly created a zakat-compliant fund to give cash through our program in Yemen. While GiveDirectly is a secular organization, our Yemen program and Zakat policy have been reviewed and certified by Amanah Advisors. In order to achieve this, we’re assured that 100% of donations will be delivered as cash, using non-zakat funds to cover the associated delivery costs.

Donations through our page are tax-deductible in the U.S. and our partners at Giving What We Can created a page allowing donors to give 100% of their gift to GiveDirectly’s zakat-compliant fund, tax-deductible in the Netherlands and the U.K. Taken together, this provides a tax-deductible option for 8.6M Muslims across three countries.

As a secular NGO, GiveDirectly may struggle to gain traction with Muslim donors 

GiveDirectly is a credible option for zakat donors: we’ve delivered cash aid to the world’s poorest in 13 countries, including Yemen, Morocco, and Muslim-majority parts of Kenya, Malawi, and Nigeria. Walid Herzallah leads our zakat fundraising efforts, and donations are delivered by Yemeni staff on the ground with our banking partner, Al Kuraimi Islamic Microfinance Bank.

However, GiveDirectly has been cautioned by Muslim-giving experts that we face an uphill battle, especially in our first Ramadan. Some donors simply won’t want to give their zakat through a secular organization. Also, many Muslims primarily learn of zakat options through word-of-mouth (e.g. local mosque), rather than charity recommenders. 

We believe we can overcome these obstacles in two ways:

  1. Appealing to younger Muslim givers, not yet habituated to other nonprofits, who will respond to our unique selling points of effectiveness, transparency, and directness. 
  2. Suggesting people give a portion of their zakat through GiveDirectly. Donors often split their zakat across multiple causes, which could be a way for us to get a foot-in-the-door.

You can help by sharing this effort widely 

As with all new efforts, the biggest obstacle is obscurity. You can help us by sharing this campaign beyond the confines of the largely non-Muslim EA community:[6] 

  1. Share on LinkedIn or social media. 
  2. Send to Muslim friends & colleagues and wish them a happy Ramadan.[7]

If successful, this campaign will spark more conversations about effective giving among Muslims and grow the number and diversity of engagements with effective altruism. Here's a recording of our webinar on effective zakat:

More information on GiveDirectly’s Yemen program

The protracted civil war in Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with 21 million people estimated to be in need of aid. Since August 2022, GiveDirectly has delivered cash donations to 2,000 families in Yemen. We aim to reach 4,200+ households before the end of this year – learn more.

About the authors

GiveDirectly is an NGO that delivers cash aid to the world’s poorest. In the past decade, they’ve reached over 1.5M people in 13 countries, including Yemen, Morocco, and Nigeria. Their work is research-backed and recommended by the EA community. Their tech platform allows them to transparently and efficiently deliver money directly to the most vulnerable to spend on what they need most. info@givedirectly.org 

Muslim Impact Lab is a multidisciplinary research organization dedicated to finding ways of maximizing the positive social impact of their servitude from an Islamic perspective. Their research methodology draws on rigorous evidence, careful reasoning, and different understandings of the Divine intent throughout Islamic intellectual history. The team comprises individuals with diverse academic backgrounds, including religious studies, psychological sciences, and STEM, among others. This diversity allows them to approach their research from multiple angles and ensures that they produce nuanced and impactful recommendations that resonate with a wide range of Muslim audiences.  info@muslimimpactlab.org

  1. ^
  2. ^

    This is based on the dominant position in Sunni understandings of Islam.

  3. ^
  4. ^

    This is the dominant view, but there is some debate 

  5. ^
  6. ^

    Muslims and non-Muslims are welcome to give through our Zakat fund.

  7. ^

     Even if you aren’t Muslim, they’ll appreciate you made the effort.

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I'm really excited that this is happening. As far as I can tell, there's a dearth of effective, Zakat-compliant giving options; this is a huge step towards remedying that.

Well done, have been waiting for years to see EA start looking into Zakat!

Amazing, thank you for starting a zakat program! I'm saving this and will be sending it to many of my relatives during Ramadan.

Hi @Robi Rahman we have a webinar on effective zakat this Saturday April 1. Hope you can come. 

Interesting project, thanks for working on this. I was wondering if you could explain a little more about how this this works? 

You mention that Zakat is generally (perhaps with some exceptions) only meant to be given to Muslims. I'm not convinced by this interpritation - it seems pretty plausible to me that Dimmi should be included also, and in a way it seems a shame to have an EA-org adopting the Wahhabist/Salafist stance, vs more moderate approaches, but I understand why this could be good for appealing to a larger number of muslims.

How does this work in practice? Your Zakat compliance certificate says you will not give to non-Muslims:

GiveDirectly will only distribute Zakat to poor Muslim beneficiaries.


Zakat will not be distributed to:
• A person not eligible for Zakat according to this policy.
• A non-Muslim.

But your website suggests you serve people without regard to their religion:

GiveDirectly has no political, religious, or sectarian affiliations, and is committed to serving people in poverty across the globe regardless of their tribe, religion, sex, and political beliefs.

Presumably in general this is not a huge issue here, because the vast majority of people in Yemen are Muslim. But presumably some are not. Does GiveDirectly do any vetting about whether the recipients are Muslim, and reject them if not? If an otherwise eligible family informed you they were actually Christian, or some other non-Islamic faith, would you decline to distribute?

Great question. How we approach this: 

  1. Our Yemen program is not the same as our Zakat fundraising. We've been paying Yemeni families since August 2022 using non-zakat funds. Zakat funds are delivered according to the zakat policy. Non-zakat funds are handled the same as any other donations. 
  2. We don't ask families about faith status and do not plan to start doing so. The reason we direct zakat funds to Yemen is that it's a non-issue –  99.99% of the country is Muslim. Our zakat advisors who certified the fund were happy with this arrangement.
  3. What's described above ("an otherwise eligible family informed you they were actually Christian, or some other non-Islamic faith") is an edge we have yet to see. If this did happen, we'd simply arrange for their transfer to come from our non-zakat funds (see point #1). 

There's an old "Effective Zakat" group with some EAs on Facebook - you've likely posted it there already, but would be good to share there if not!

I do not like this. One of the fundamental premises of EA is to be neutral about who we are helping - people here, people there, people now, people later, all get weighted the same. Specifically setting out to help only Muslims therefor seems non-EA. If Muslims want to do it, I guess they have that right, but EA shouldn't be touching it.

Thanks for raising this, I am definitely pretty sympathetic to this concern.

My view here is that a muslim person giving in this way is not acting in accordance with the principles of effective altruism, because they are displaying extreme partiality. However, facilitating GiveDirectly to be Zakat compliant could be a valuable EA project. There are a lot of poor muslims in the world, and a lot of Zakat giving in the world also, so improving its efficiency could be quite valuable.

In this regard I actually think this proposal comes out looking a lot better than most 'what is the EA way to do X or help Y' posts, which typically imply the author wants their own partial donations to be counted as EA, not that they just want to make other people's donations better from an impartial perspective.

Although most of us display extreme partiality with a large portion of our spending -- e.g., I think of what I end up spending to keep my dog happy and well in an urban environment!

Yeah I don't think partiality is wrong in general, it's just that your dog (like most things) is not an EA project.

I would object to a self-identified EA only giving money to help Muslims, but I don't object to self-identified EAs making it easy for Muslims to give money to help poor Muslims.

I would object to a self-identified EA only giving money to help Muslims and claiming it as an EA activity. How people choose to purchase their fuzzies (as opposed to utilons) isn't really my concern.

I agree with this in spirit, but think that in this case it's completely fine. a) Presumably, for some people, being zakat compatible has important cultural meaning. I generally think that the EA thing to do is to act within your constraints and belief systems and to do as much good as you can, not to need to tear down all of them. b) In my opinion, the point of impartiality is "find the most effective ways of helping people". I do not personally think that GiveDirectly is the most effective way to give, but it's not at all clear to me that the Yemeni recipients are more or less deserving than any other. Being partial between equivalent categories of doing good effectively seems obviously fine c) On a meta level, emotional and cultural factors really matter! I think it is a significant mistake for an EA to think that just because something is irrational you need to ignore it (though there are many scenarios where it is high value to try to get past it). If a certain form of giving is more motivating or sustainably or acceptable to your friends and family, it seems likely that you'll continue to engage with effective giving and be giving in several years, which is a very big factor! People are not fully rational, no matter what they pretend or strive for, and I think that trying to ignore this is a common EA mistake d) As noted below, this probably just funges with all other GiveDirectly donations and so just doesn't matter

For what it's worth, I do agree with your point in principle! Effectiveness is important and valuable and it's a mistake to lose sight of it. But I don't agree in this specific context, at least of this donation vs general GiveDirectly

I take it that, at least at this stage, the recipients would be GD recipients anyway and the directed giving is replacing "secular" monies that would have been given to the same people. There's some extra overhead for getting these new donors on board, but that's the nature of fundraising.

I sympathise with this position. Impartiality is a key tenet of EA. At the same time, EA already tolerates outright speciesism (people, including a number of high-status individuals within the community, who explicitly say that they value non-humans less than humans not because of sentience, but because they are simply members of a different species). Moreover, as Jason says, these people would have still been recipients anyway.

I'm not aware of high status individuals in the community justifying prioritizing humans on the mere basis of species membership. Usually I see claims about differences in capacities and interests. Are there public examples you can share?

And the charity is going to poor Muslims no matter what we do -- we'd only be harming poor people by declining to offer a more effective way to do good because of our disapproval of the donor's religious restrictions.

Very cool. But do we have any data or reasoning transparent estimates of the relative effectiveness of the largest existing Islamic affiliated charities ? Prima favor I suspect giving cash is at least as good as giving food, tents, etc., it how much better?

Great question! We'll discuss at our upcoming webinar this Saturday. Hope you can join. 

Yes! I love this. 

“As a secular NGO, GiveDirectly may struggle to gain traction with Muslim donors”I strongly agree with this.

Isn’t an obvious solution to market the Zakat compliant fund under a different name than Give Directly?

(Obvious choice would be whatever “Give Directly” is in Arabic)

We do have a page in Arabic for non-English readers. However, an important part of building trust with zakat givers is transparency and directness (donor=>GiveDirectly=>Yemeni recipient). Rather than market/collect zakat through another organization as a pass-through, we opted to stick with the simplicity that has appealed to other donors. UNHCR is a secular organization with a successful zakat campaign marketed under their name, albeit a much more famous name than GiveDirectly. 

Another way we plan to bridge the gap: working with Muslim groups and influencers to share the campaign. 

FYI, EA Iran had a quite active group of mostly medical students in Tehran a year ago - they might have other things on their mind these days, but could be worth connecting with them. 

Just dropping this in here. It's not clear to me whether they have GiveDirectly in mind (they appear to be more concerned about UNHCR) but I just thought it might be a perspective to be aware of: https://www.civilsociety.co.uk/news/some-secular-charities-capitalising-on-muslim-giving-during-ramadan-ceo-warns.html

I think this could have a really big impact and has great potential. Zakat is a big thing in the Muslim world and making even some of it more effective is worth pursuing! 

This is a fantastic idea. Congratulations to all involved. 

Out of curiosity, does GD have any data on whether other religions donate a portion of their tithe/tzdaka/etc to GD? 

From the perspective of a Christian who (more or less) tithes to secular global health charities, it would be challenging to figure this out unless you asked donors outright whether they were acting in accordance with a religious teaching about tithing / believed in tithing and were counting the donation toward their tithe.

Very happy to see this!

I'd like to join the webinar please.

@GiveDirectly Has the seminar passed already? If so would it be possible to see the slides, please?

When you tag a user, press enter or click on the name.

@GiveDirectly Rochelle would like to join the webinar and did not receive a message yet (presumably).

It has not! We just posted the sign up link here: GiveDirect.ly/zakat-webinar (it's this coming Saturday April 1)

This looks excellent! I'm keen to support this in any way I can.

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