Lessons from the Somali Community on Giving

By Ramla Bile

What giving traditions does your family or organization practice? Imagine if you weren’t binded by the 1% or 5% giving threshold that many individuals and foundations follow. Guided by values of abundance, the Somali diaspora operates with an economy of love and community accountability that is radically different from the broader philanthropic ecosystem in Minnesota.

Mainstream giving assumes that:
• If you don’t have a donor advised fund or foundation, you’re not charitable.
• If you’re not high-net-worth, you have a diminished capacity to give.

Too often, such thinking projects notions of scarcity on others. The result is that foundations and nonprofits leave money on the table by not tapping into givers of color.

Not everyone thinks about giving in the same way. In Euro-American cultures, people form entire identities and associations around their giving — proudly claiming “philanthropist” as a title. There’s nothing wrong with that. That said, the mainstream (and formalized) giving community is not inclusive. Ironically, there’s no word for philanthropist in Somali. There are phrases that, when used together, express the sentiment but no singular word exists. In fact, that lexicon isn’t present in a lot of communities of color. Yet, there are everyday ways that Somalis and other communities of color practice giving — and everyone is included.

What an Economy of Abundance Looks Like
A few years ago, one of my dad’s friends died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was the sole breadwinner and left behind a wife and young children. They had just purchased a home and had the looming burden of a mortgage to maintain. Within weeks of his funeral, the Somali community had fully paid off the house to ensure the family was taken care of. The goal was to stabilize their housing situation to support the mom in her venture to assume the role as sole breadwinner. Even those who did not have liquid assets sold their jewelry and other items to make a meaningful contribution. This example is a measure of community love and accountability. It’s an understanding that none of us are free unless we’re all taken care of. There is nothing unusual or endearing about this particular story. When we do not operate from a position of scarcity, we have capacity to make a difference.

When foundations and nonprofits fundraise, they often focus on tapping into wealthy entrepreneurs or c-suite execs. Grassroots givers are pigeonholed into supporting political campaigns and movements. But this thinking doesn’t reflect where and how giving happens. It perpetuates a cycle of inequity. Self-determination occurs when those impacted by issues are invited to invest in and create the solution.

Intergenerational Giving
Growing up in a Somali household, you became a philanthropist as soon as you receive your first paycheck. It’s quite common for young people to donate half their income to charitable efforts. By 18, I had helped build a water well in a rural community near Jijiga, Ethiopia, launched a small business in Nairobi, Kenya, and invested in various other projects.

According to the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, the Somali diaspora gives $1 billion to Somalia each year — this value is comprised of 23% of each donor’s household income. People support individual households, private businesses, public/communal infrastructure, mosques, women’s and youth groups, and clan-based associations, to name a few.

Somali teens continue this tradition today — giving to organizations recommended by their parents while also supporting their own causes. Frustrated with how mental health services were traditionally offered and underfunded, Somali youth found a program they believed in and spread the word on social media. During the holy month of Ramadan, youth launched fundraising campaigns in multiple cities across the diaspora and invested in a different approach to mental health —one that expanded care and preserved the dignity and self-determination of patients. Nearly 1,000 donors raised funds for the Habeeb Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Giving in Somali and Muslim cultures comes with an innate and freeing sense of trust and abundance. In fact, there’s an Islamic saying that expresses, “Your left hand should not know what your right hand has given” (which actually is a theme across several spiritual traditions). The idea that giving increases abundance is a theme in East African proverbs. One saying goes, “Grow your sustenance by giving.”

Giving Across Communities of Color
Somalis represent a small subset of the broader giving that occurs within communities of color in the United States. People of color are a powerful force in giving — not simply an emerging market to tap into or people to “engage” in a particular practice. Consider this:
Sixty-three percent of Latino households make charitable donations. (W.K. Kellogg Foundation)
African Americans give away 25 percent more of their income per year than white Americans. (W.K. Kellogg Foundation)
“Over the last six years, four dozen Asian-American/Pacific Islander giving circles across the country have distributed $2.2 million to more than 400 nonprofit organizations — helping fill a gap created in part by the perception that Asian Americans excel in academics and business.” (Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy)

These numbers show us that people of color give in high numbers and at a high percent of their income. A major lesson from the Somali community and other communities of color is the value of abundance. The more we prioritize giving through a particular vehicle or tie it to a percent of one’s income, we’re giving credence to the next investment versus the current. When we give from a place of abundance, magic happens. Scarcity — more than ability — erodes our capacity
to transform our communities.

Ramla Bile is a published writer, racial justice advocate, and social entrepreneur. She was a 2011-2012 fellow in the Given's Foundation's Black Writers Program. Ramla founded the firm Qalam Consulting, to help nonprofits, foundations, and small businesses grow their grassroots impact. She also co-founded and writes for Ubuntu: the Collective, a platform that spotlights emergent issues impacting the global black diaspora.

More of Giving Forum V40, Fall 2018