Do Nonprofits Actually Bring Change?


I am heavily involved with nonprofit organizations (NGOs) and their work and one of the most common questions I am asked by people is, “Does the work actually bring change or benefit?” or “How effective are nonprofits?”

I am never able to answer this question with a yes or no because I don’t know how the questioner is defining “change” or “benefit.” The problem is that most people who are not involved in nonprofit work define “change” as a massive turnover of events in a short period of time. However, that is not how we in the nonprofit work define change. We define “change” as tiny steps towards a larger goal. We realize that a massive level of change in society cannot occur except after a long period of time. This is why us nonprofit workers are happy even if we are able to win over one person to our cause in a room full of hundreds of people. For us, this is a victory while others may see it as insignificant or failure. But we see it as a domino effect. Now, you have one more person who is supportive of your cause and who will tell others about it and perhaps win over a family member or friend and so on and so forth. Here is another example:

A nonprofit will meet with government officials to try and change something (illegal occupation, financial support of a tyrant, illegal war, poverty, research funding, etc.) but nothing will become of it. An outsider will look at this and say, “See, you guys are wasting time. Nothing happened.” But something did happen. We did SOMETHING. Now those government officials are aware of us and our work and our cause.  They know we exist. It’s in their minds. At least they will start thinking about it whether in our favor or not. Today we may have 30 people doing something for our cause and government officials turn a blind eye but tomorrow we can come with thousands more who are willing to do something to bring change, then what will they say? The pressure builds. This is how you bring change: Through tiny, consistent, committed steps.

Yes, some nonprofits do succeed and grow quicker than others. And some causes are more popular, therefore, naturally grow faster in change and support than others. But this is extremely rare, hence, for most nonprofits, it is a lifetime commitment to the cause.  This is why nonprofit workers are one of my favorite people in the world because while others are standing around just complaining about the wrongs and injustices in society, the nonprofit workers are actually out there striving to do SOMETHING about it even if at microscopic levels. Even a tiny amount of good counts towards something as Allah tells us in the Qur’an [meaning of which is]:

“So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it, And whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” [Qur’an 99:8]

One of the main reasons why massive positive change does not happen is because while a large segment of the society may acknowledge some wrong in their society, they fail to act in any way in trying to change it. It’s very easy to sit around and complain but it is much harder to actually organize and try to bring change in society. This is why, to me, nonprofit workers are like warriors trying to do what needs to be done but most of society fails to do. And this is why I decided to join them full time over a year ago and try to become part of the solution.  All of the above can be summarized in just one hadith:

The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said: “Whoever among you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; if he cannot, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of Faith.” [Reported by An-Nasa’i]

To me, the above is exactly what nonprofits do. They try to work within the law of the land in order to bring positive change in society. If they are able to try and get laws passed, then they will. If they cannot, they will speak out against it either through rallies, events, newsletters, social media, booths at various events, meetings with government officials, etc. These are all different avenues that a Muslim should pursue in order to bring change in the modern world. The above wording of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is an inspiration to try and do SOMETHING about the evil and wrong we see in society. Yes, we may not able to do it with our hand (immediate change in society) but we can at least say something about it or bring awareness around the issue in order to educate the people. Education leads to awareness which leads to change.

The most beautiful thing that I’ve seen in nonprofit work is when nonprofits from different backgrounds and causes come together for a common cause and work together to bring change. You’ll see Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. coming together and working to eradicate some common evil that we all agree upon (racism, government corruption, illegal war, illegal occupations, police brutality, minimum wage, labor rights, etc.) This is something that even Allah commands us to do in the Qur’an [meaning of which is]:

“And cooperate with each other in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression.” [Qur’an 5:2]

Now, to answer the original question, “Does nonprofit work bring any change or benefit?” The answer is YES, IN TINY STEPS.

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