Shariq Siddiqui: The lessons philanthropy can find in love

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Shariq SiddiquiFor the past 25 years, February has been the month that reminds me of love. Not because it is the month in which many celebrate Valentine’s Day, but because it is the month I met, proposed to and got engaged to my wife. The fact that we promised to marry each other on Feb. 14 is a coincidence—honestly!

However, this coincidence helps me explain what is a rather unusual marriage within the American context. My wife and I did not fall in love before we were married—we built our love after we were married. We had what is commonly known as an “arranged” or “introduced” marriage.

My wife was finishing her MBA, and a mutual friend arranged for her to intern in the not-for-profit where I worked. After we had met, unaware of the true motives of this encounter, we were each asked the same question: “So do you think you would want to marry this person?”

We both felt that a second meeting might be useful to think about this further! After all, making a decision on whether she would make a good intern required a totally different set of analyses than whether she would make a good wife. On her end, trying to work out whether this would be a good internship was different from working out whether this could be a good marriage.

The next day, I thought of the best way to determine whether I thought we were compatible. Awkwardly, I asked (what I maintain is a critical question to determine compatibility), “Which is better—‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’?” Fortunately for us, we were in agreement—“Star Trek!”

Twenty-five years later, we have four children, one granddaughter, a Siberian husky, five chickens and an estimated 60,000 bees. I am not suggesting that the “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek” question is the ingredient to determining a successful marriage. I am suggesting that, like most marriages, ours started with some framework to determine compatibility, but it then took years of hard work to build love and our family.

Love means so many things to so many people and different relationships. The word philanthropy is derived from a Greek word that means love of humankind. But love doesn’t seem to be emphasized within the way we engage in formal philanthropy. While love can play an important role in our personal lives, it isn’t embraced as much within the formal philanthropic profession.

Some key elements of building love within our 25-year marriage might be useful for philanthropists to embrace.

First, remember that doing this right is hard work. We must commit to a long-term collaboration to achieve a common goal.

Second, it requires putting oneself in the other’s paradigm to help each other understand how better to collaborate.

Third, love uncovers the brilliance in people. Rather than viewing the people we fund through a paternalistic lens, what if we thought of them as vessels of knowledge?

Fourth, love removes restrictions and embraces what is possible. Philanthropic foundations should prioritize unrestricted giving. People over programs.

Finally, love is fearless. We should be willing to take risks. My wife and I found common ground in our love for “Star Trek,” then took a risk by jumping into a lifelong commitment. Philanthropy should be willing to take risks to achieve a mission.

As the poet Rumi wrote, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Foundations and philanthropists need to tear down barriers and embrace the infinite possibilities available by taking a risk.•

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Siddiqui is assistant professor and director of the Muslim Philanthropy Initiative at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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