Here’s How Zakat Foundation of America is Changing the Face of Orphan Sponsorship Worldwide

Within each of us is a calling to help people vulnerable to poverty in an impactful way. However, these acts of goodwill can become convoluted and even overwhelming when faced with the multitude of options for giving. How does one decide where to donate their money and time? Over 20 years ago, Zakat Foundation of America was created to enrich the lives of those in poverty, and since then, they have not stopped refining their process to make it better for both recipients and donors. In 2020 alone, their orphan care program helped reach over 634,000 vulnerable children, providing not only nutrition, clean water, education fees, and shelter, but most importantly, programs to help them become self-sufficient. In this conversation with Amna Mirza, Chief Marketing Officer of Zakat Foundation of America, she explains how Zakat Foundation is making its mark as a top humanitarian organization.

What is the meaning behind the word ‘Zakat’?

“In Arabic, the literal translation of Zakat is charity. In Islam, the term Zakat describes the annual custom of giving a percentage of your wealth to charity as an act of gratitude for your abundance and the betterment of society. So, basically, it means to pay it forward through charity. But it goes beyond that; it’s not a Muslim thing. It crosses all boundaries. And I think when you make a dedicated effort to give a percentage of your earnings to charity every year, it becomes a part of who you are. It changes you from the inside out, which sets an example for others, young and old. Good acts done consistently are fundamental, and giving annually can really change the world.”

You’ve made a risky move in changing your legacy orphan sponsorship program. What led you to make the change?

“I realized soon after joining Zakat Foundation of America that although our orphan sponsorship program provided strong support to the child, the child was reduced to a photo — our call for support was reduced to a superficial interaction. It just didn’t feel right to pick an orphan from an assortment of photos, objectifying the most vulnerable children. I had to make a change, as risky as it was.

Most of the children on our website looked sad. Oftentimes, the children didn’t look like they wanted their photos taken. The sponsorship experience made me feel like I was shopping. I found myself scrolling through pages and pages to find that one child who “looked right,” whatever that means. I conducted a survey of how orphan sponsorship is managed around the world. Pretty much every organization had this photo-based approach, Muslim and non-Muslim; whether the sponsor was choosing a child or the child choosing a sponsor, photos were at the center of the experience. The biggest issue to me was the shopping experience. There was no room for that type of interaction at our organization, and if sponsors didn’t like it, we’d be okay with that.”

Zakat Foundation of America has grown tremendously over the past couple decades. What is something you’ve improved upon during your time as Chief Marketing Officer, and how has it impacted the foundation?

“I’m really proud and excited about our orphan sponsorship campaign. We have reimagined it from the fundamental point of entry to the entire experience. The way orphan sponsorship has been handled — year after year for decades, across all faith-based and secular organizations alike — is that you go through pictures of the orphans, pick the one you like, and get onto a plan to support them. Often, these were low-quality images of the child looking sad and without proper clothing, and from the marketing and branding perspective, it was a bad user experience. Although the end result was good because the child receives the care they needed, the selection process was flawed. That was the experience we presented to donors when I joined Zakat Foundation of America. It felt like a shopping experience, and I had a negative, visceral reaction to it. I made it my mission to create a better system for this, and within a few months of joining, I pitched to the team for an overhaul of the user experience. Fast forward to now, and we have just launched a new campaign. We removed all ‘browsing’ and most filters from the process and have created an algorithm that assigns a child who’s been waiting for aid the longest to be sponsored first, which is the most important thing and the only thing that should matter. There are risks involved here because donors have become accustomed to the first step in the donation process being selecting the orphan they most connect with, but we felt it was the right thing to do. I’m immensely proud that we launched this with the full support of our board and Executive Director, Khalil Demir. Since launching, we’ve gotten such a strong response; the early numbers have been incredible. I’m seeing over 300% of what we would typically get regarding the number of grants sponsored in this last week. Our community has responded, and I hope more people will take the lead from this and reimagine this whole process as a wholesome human experience, as it is intended to be.”

Can you share a great success story about your orphan care program?

“We have so many amazing stories! A young boy came to live at an orphanage we had in Pakistan when he was 8 years old. He had lost his father, and the family was very poor with little to live on. At the time, the orphanage was close to the Afghanistan border and primarily cared for Afghan refugee children. This boy would have been lost to the streets or worse. At the orphanage, he received food, safe shelter, clothing, and an education. For $50 a month, an orphan in our program receives all that, but most importantly, they receive love, hope, and prospects for a bright future. This young boy turned into a young man and received his education because a generous donor committed to helping him year after year. This young man came to a conference our Executive Director spoke at in Pakistan and introduced himself as that boy who lived in our orphanage for his formative years. He was a doctor and wanted to help give back to Zakat Foundation of America. He’s now on the ground in Afghanistan helping us with our food security and shelter programs there. He’s helping us save lives in Afghanistan. His journey has come full circle, and we’re honored to be a part of it.

So you’ve integrated the Marcom Strategy into Zakat Foundation of America’s framework. How integral is having the dialogue and building a relationship with your consumers?

“It’s absolutely vital, and it’s all done through the strength of our brand and our storytelling. The donor’s and customer’s experience with us ensures they come back and continue to support more programs and help save more lives. Understanding who they are, what they care about, and being genuine and authentic is important. We are a Charity Navigator top-ranked charity with the highest 4-star rating, and we have a high rating with both the Better Business Bureau and Great Nonprofits. We’re transparent with our records and our accounting. We are firm in our promise that what is donated goes directly to the programs; 100% of the money given to our emergency efforts goes to the emergency work, and 100% of orphan sponsorship donations go directly to the orphan program. We’re not taking overhead or administration fees off that. We are in a time when our customers are looking for a way to feel good about their position in this world and what they can do to help, and we make it easy for them. We’ve never really done that before in a strategic way.”

What sets your foundation apart with specific regards to your communications strategy?

“Our communications strategy uses storytelling across all our platforms to highlight the impact our donors make by giving them real-life examples of the difference they make. Most organizations are unable to do that because they don’t have the intimate connections with their beneficiaries as we do. So not only are we able to tell you, ‘This is the child you’re caring for, this is their picture, this is a hand-drawn picture they made for you,’ or even, ‘These are their grades they’re getting in school;’ we also give it to them without any strings attached. We have no desire or strategy to convert our orphans’ (or their families’) religion, unlike other well-renowned organizations. It’s unconditional love and support that we give. The intimacy is really important to us, and it’s strategic for us to use that as well.”

Zakat Foundation of America works in a lot of programmatic areas. Beyond your orphan work, what is something we should know about that is happening abroad, and how can we help today? 

“It’s shocking when you think about the number of people across the globe who don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. The statistics are that 200 million hours are spent each year collecting water, which is a shocking number. When you do the conversion, that’s 8.5 million days. Most of the burden lies on girls to collect water, and that is time they’re not in school. Just imagine what else they could be doing with that time if they weren’t collecting water. When women and girls make the trips to get water, sometimes lasting eight hours or more, they’re at risk of gender-based violence on the trail. They travel the same route and are too often targeted by attackers who know just how vulnerable they are. Through Zakat Foundation of America, with only $500 you can dedicate a water hand pump, which has a lifespan of up to 15 years to provide clean, accessible, easy drinking water for families in a village and community. Donating a water hand pump is one really easy thing you can do to change and even save lives across the world, all from your device.”

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Sarah Hovenkamp, Writer

LA Weekly