We all have a guardian angel and it is not the stuff of myths and legends. Rather it is a bundle of ideas, an enactment of a vision, and a mass of goodwill. But it remains largely invisible and seldom appreciated until it is gone. On July 8, 2016, Pakistan and the world bid farewell to Abdul Sattar Edhi, a humanitarian whose compassion touched millions. It was a dark day and it went darker.
Nonprofit organizations are often the extensions of their founders. They are an outgrowth of the compassionate human spirit and there is always a central character that fashions benevolence into something we can admire, see and touch. Edhi had truly created a philanthropic empire and reigned over it for half a century. Today, the Edhi Foundation provides services for relief and alleviation of misery that covers the entire human life cycle, from birth till death. It is most well-known as the operator of the largest fleet of ambulances in the world, which includes airborne vehicles and rescue boats. But in July 2016, everything was at stake. Shortly after the demise of the empire’s leader, monthly donations fell sharply. Many people who donated to the foundation did so because of Edhi himself and now there was a void that could not be filled. Scaling down was not an option. Too many lives depended on the fate of the foundation. The question lingered, “How to perpetuate Edhi’s compassionate spirit?”
Most nonprofit organizations in Pakistan go through similar experiences. But their survivability is the key to uplifting Pakistan and in helping it traverse through unfathomable challenges. Charity organizations are made on the promise of change.
In fact, they are on the cusp of change. They have a special role in society. They fill voids left by public institutes and corporations. They are mission-driven and value-oriented. And, most importantly, they channel compassion of the entire populace towards areas which are of critical importance. In essence, nonprofit organizations turn human feelings of benevolence into observable change.
Pakistan is known for its textile businesses, its cricket stars, its football industry and breathtaking natural beauty. It is also home to the magnificent Himalayas, the world’s largest mountain range. Nothing rivals these towering peaks, except Pakistan’s adoration for altruism. The country is one of the most charitable nations in the world and, according to the Pakistan Center for Philanthropy (PCP), a staggering 98% of households donate in one form or the other. The annual figure amounts to nearly 1% of Pakistan’s GDP which is comparable to some of the most developed countries in the world, including the United Kingdom and Canada where the counterpart figure is 1.3% and 1.2%, respectively. Many prominent Pakistanis are also world leading philanthropists. Pakistani cricketer, Shahid Afridi is hailed as 20th most charitable athlete in the world. Prime Minister and former cricketer Imran Khan is also recognized for setting some of the most exemplary nonprofits in the country. There are an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 nonprofit organizations currently operating.
Today Pakistan is at a crossroads where it is juggling a multitude of challenges amidst the rapidly evolving global landscape. While there are ample nonprofit organizations in the country, many such organizations are facing their own challenges. For the most part, giving has not been institutionalized. According to the PCP, most people donate to individuals rather than institutions or nonprofit organizations. While there is nothing inherently wrong with making charitable contributions to poor individuals, there is always a risk that these contributions will not lead to the desired outcomes. Only nonprofit organizations can lead sustained change. There is a great need to formalize giving so that one can better monitor use of resources. The informal giving pattern may only lead to short-term improvement in the lives of a few people. Organizations can use the same resources for developing facilities, providing vocational training, and relief against illness. People are also inclined to donate to madrasas (religious schools) which are characterized by absence of monitoring and evaluation systems.
Many nonprofit organizations themselves are part of the informal network. Madrasas are prime examples of such institutions. According to a survey done in 2000 by the Aga Khan Foundation and Johns Hopkins University, 30% of all charity organizations are in fact religious schools. Of course, a lot has changed since then. But so far very little research has been done to identify the nonprofit landscape. Perhaps this should be the starting point in reinvigorating charity institutes.
There is also a growing cynical distrust of nonprofit organizations. Apart from a few prominent players, many organizations struggle to win the trust of the public. When celebrities open their own charities, they experience immediate brand loyalty. But when the founder is a commoner, they struggle to get their message across. Popular nonprofit organizations in Pakistan almost always revolve around prominent personalities. However, when such personalities fade away, these organizations experience dwindling support.
Perhaps charity is not the solution. Nonprofit organizations should embrace the social enterprise model. Such entities often make profits but they do so while working for social impact. In Pakistan there are rarely such organizations as they fear that making profits will derail them from their mission and they might end up losing their nonprofit status. Such organizations can introduce new products that contribute to their economic viability. For example, an organization can provide training to disabled citizens in creating handicrafts and it can then sell the products made by trainees, thereby earning profits which can then be used to fund more such educational programs. Organizations need to think of ways on how they can be more sustainable.
They can also reach out to Pakistani expatriates. According to research by the PCP, Pakistanis living in the USA donate $1 billion annually. This represents great potential. Additionally, nonprofit organizations can harness social media for outreach and increase their digital presence to improve their visibility. More visibility translates into greater inflow of donations.
Nonprofit organizations should be appreciated for the impact they are creating. They are, after all, our guardian angels.
The article was originally published in SouthAsia Magazine on January 1, 2019. For original content click here.