“I have a goal of uniting the entire community of Abu Dhabi — the expats, the locals, the NGOs, the corporate sector, government interests and the diplomatic corps in service and humanitarian care,” she said. “The Salvation Army is a perfect vehicle for achieving that.”
The “she” here is donor Pamela Abdallah, subject of a tremendous piece by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ann Rodgers, which came to my attention via the good folks at the Duke Divinity Call & Response blog.
And the last sentence of the above quote is sheer nonprofit shockwave:
If the Salvation Army is the vehicle…then that makes donor Abdallah the driver.
And what a driver she is. As Rodgers details, Abdallah has been a virtual nonprofit organization since arriving in the United Arab Emirates since 2008.
Note that I didn’t say a virtual one woman nonprofit organization, because more than most nonprofits I know, Abdallah networks by nature:
When the couple moved to Abu Dhabi in 2008, Ms. Abdalla found no place for her legal skills in the Islamic court system. She decided to focus on volunteer work. While talking with an Anglican priest about unmet needs in Abu Dhabi, she learned about the runaway housemaids and the labor camps.
She had seen Indian and Pakistani men in orange jumpsuits cleaning streets in 115-degree heat while she drove past in air-conditioned comfort. Most construction and maintenance in Abu Dhabi is done by migrant laborers from South Asia, who live in camps about 20 miles outside the city, she said. Deplorable camp conditions made the news in the Emirates, and reforms were under way before she got there. Still, the migrants work 12 hours a day, six days a week, for low wages, and sleep in grim barracks.
She began to visit and bring supplies to a women’s camp. Her first big project took place during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in which a daylight fast is broken at sundown with a meal called iftar.
She persuaded a five-star hotel to supply a special iftar meal to the 200 women in the camp. Six truckloads of food were delivered. Ms. Abdalla organized 20 expatriate volunteers to serve and clean up.
Next came worker bus raids:
With the help of a male journalist, she surveyed two busloads of workers who were dropped off daily near her children’s school about what they would most like to eat. The winner was Kentucy Fried Chicken Twisters, a chicken wrap that the laborers could rarely afford.
Students at the American school held bake sales to raise money to buy the wraps. The teens organized the surprise delivery of a Twister, an apple and a bottle of cold water for 150 men. The workers were overjoyed, and the Emirates’ major newspaper covered it.
“My goal is to continue raiding buses at various locations throughout the city until a mystique builds around it and the workers begin wondering among themselves where those raiders will show up next,” she said.
As Mrs. Abdallah did her work, she sensed the need for a broader platform to support it. Enter the Salvation Army, whom she took the initiative to summon:
From the beginning she has prayed for the Salvation Army to bring its tremendous resources to Abu Dhabi. She wrote to officers she knew, urging them to come.
One day, out of the blue, she saw a banner at the Anglican Church where she worships, announcing the Salvation Army’s presence in Abu Dhabi.
Two days later she met Maj. Mike Hawley, who asked how the Army could help migrant workers. She told him about two bedbug-infested sofas in the safe house. Within a day he gave her $2,000 to buy new, pest-proof vinyl sofas.
Notice how when the Salvation Army arrived, Mrs. Abdallah didn’t fall back into the role of supporter, eagerly awaiting their appeal letters so she could respond to their agenda-setting programs. Instead, she set their agenda. And now she plans to recruit people into the Salvation Army–not through their donations but through encouraging them to volunteer and through serving them via Salvation Army programs.
Now here’s the million dollar question (literally):
Given that we know that 84% of donors prefer to be solicited by folks they know, in a future where individuals like Mrs. Abdallah draw on nonprofits as vehicles–rather than being philanthropists studiously reviewing funding proposals from nonprofits in order to determine which nonprofit is having the greatest social impact–who are the people in Mrs. Abdallah’s sphere of influence more likely to give to: Mrs. Abdallah or charities with compelling proposals?
The answer is pretty clear, less so how nonprofits should respond. Should they:
- A: Assume that Mrs. Abdallah is the exception to the rule and proceed with business (er, charity) as usual?
- B: Assume that Mrs. Abdallah is a notable exception (one of the 20% of donors who will be missionaries for your shared cause) and equip her as a special case?
- C: Assume that Mrs. Abdallah is typical of the role donors will seek to play in the future in relation to the causes they love and seek assistance from others like her who can help reshape the nonprofit as an effective platform to support her?
My gut tells me that the majority of nonprofits will answer A, noting, “Our donors aren’t like Mrs. Abdallah at all”. My gut further tells me that the supposedly progressive nonprofits will answer B and thus not change fundamentally, since, as you’ll notice, B still has the nonprofit in the rule of Arbiter Of The Cause.
Finally, my gut tells me that nonprofits who answer C will increasingly thrive in the days to come. Kudos to Salvation Army for choosing this option and appointing Mrs. Abdallah to the chairmanship of their Middle East Advisory Board.
After all, a vehicle should always appreciate a skillful driver.