Alumni Spotlight: Muhi Khwaja, American Muslim Community Foundation

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Muhi Khwaja is the Director of Development & Philanthropy at the American Muslim Community Foundation, where he supports fundraising and strategic planning across the country. He recently served as the Chief Development Officer at the MAVEN Project, a telehealth nonprofit supporting access to care for vulnerable patients. Muhi has worked with dozens of nonprofit organizations leveraging his expertise in fundraising.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): What drew you to work in the nonprofit sector?

Muhi Khwaja: My first job out of college was an internship at the University of Michigan called the Development Summer Internship Program. It shared best practices in the industry, showcasing how the university fundraised with their alumni, sports teams, hospitals, and everything in between. I was introduced to a staff of 500 people in development, and met people who had their names on University buildings. On Fridays, we had an 8 hour class on best practices. We got to hear from university officials and donors, and I was so enamored by it all. It was great to see professionals right out of college who have the tools of best practice at helping nonprofit programs. From that experience, I could imagine a full career in something like this.

CPNL: How has COVID impacted your work and approach?

Muhi Khwaja: As a major gift officer and a nonprofit founder at the American Muslim Community Foundation (AMCF), COVID-19 shifted a lot. We provided a community grant of $360,000 to dozens of mosques across the country that weren’t seeing congregants. Typically, they would get most of their revenue from people putting their tithing into a box when they walked out of the mosque. Because of COVID, they had to get creative by executing online fundraising and mailing their donors letters. The critical piece was building relationships. Since many of the congregations didn’t have their phone numbers or email address, nonprofits had to invest in staffing that touches base with the community.

I also stopped traveling. Prior to the pandemic, I was gone two to three times a month traveling across the entire country, but then there was a halt. It shifted to picking up the phone and scheduling zoom meetings. We still had our strongest year in 2020, and that was because of passionate, dedicated, and loyal donors. You only get that from the relationships you build over time. COVID-19 changed the game for all of the nonprofits I’ve been involved with. I think that the organizations prior to the pandemic that had strategic plans fared better than those nonprofits that didn’t have a plan.

CPNL: How have you seen relationships between nonprofits and their donors sustained?

Muhi Khawja: Relationship building is critical. For board members, you have to figure out what their commitment and monthly timeline is, what other committees they are on, and if it is an operational board or strictly fiduciary. Diversity is also important, obviously in race and religion, but other socioeconomic and geographic factors too. When I engage a Board, I take into consideration each member’s strong suits and industries. I also look at the relationships they are building within the community and see how that relates to the mission of the nonprofit organization. You want your board to be reflective of the communities they are serving.

CPNL: How do you define community, and what is the importance and role of community in your work?

Muhi Khwaja: Community is at the core of what we do every day. It’s about the impact. About 400 nonprofit organizations have received more than $8 million in just over five years, primarily from about 150 families across the country. There are a wide variety of organizations that Muslims care about beyond their faith-based institutions. They’re supporting organizations in their backyard, their state, and across their country. My hope is that AMCF will be a resource to the hundreds of thousands of Muslim families living in the US so they can make their charitable donations through a donor-advised fund. One day, they may even be able to have their name on some university building at their Alma Mater. Community is a very central part of my work and experience traveling the country. There are some national networks and coalitions of nonprofits within a region, but there are so many great leaders in the community. When you talk about community and AMCF, it’s about funding and empowering those institutions that are making a difference in the community.

CPNL: How have conversations of identity intersected with your fundraising work? What challenges or surprises have you encountered?

Muhi Khwaja: We’ve tried to be as inclusive of the American Muslim fabric as we can be. We’ve supported organizations that represent Black Muslim Americans, Muslim women, and Hispanic Americans. It’s about highlighting nonprofits led by a vast variety of dedicated community leaders, showcasing the depth of their work. In addition to that, we’re looking at recruiting more board members to be more reflective of the American Muslim fabric. We want to get more families who have diverse donor-advised funds, helping nonprofits establish endowments from a wide range of [backgrounds.] We try to diversify and amplify the micro-communities that make up the larger American Muslim population.

CPNL: What was your biggest takeaway from the Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate program?

Muhi Khwaja: There’s a lot of work that nonprofit leaders have to do. The program brilliantly articulates what it means to operate a nonprofit. You can have someone who has been in finance their whole life, but this program can open their eyes to everything that isn’t finance. I’ve been a fundraising development professional, so it allowed me to better understand the governance and finance side. Those are the reasons I’ve recruited CPAs and lawyers to the board of AMCF since I don’t have that skill set. This program helped me better understand and value the work that they’re doing. It’s a great way to embolden your nonprofit, and showcase the different aspects of effectively running a nonprofit.

CPNL: How has the Certificate Program contributed to your career?

Muhi Khwaja: It’s one of the more professional development experiences that I cherish. It was right when COVID hit, and I still had a great time with the cohort. The faculty was superb, and the organizers were amazing. It inspired AMCF to do more programming dedicated to nonprofits in the Muslim community to have access to the best practices. We started our social impact accelerator in six different topic areas and had Muslim leaders teach one and a half hour courses. It was inspired by the Certificate Program, continuing to pay it forward.

CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Muhi Khwaja: Do it. Without a doubt. If you have the time to dedicate to the Program, you will receive a lot of value, not only from the instructors but the cohort. It’s a great way to build relationships with other people who are going through the same challenges as you across different fields. Even if you’re at a small nonprofit, and you’re the only staff member at the nonprofit, there’s likely someone in the cohort who is working or has worked in a similar situation. The camaraderie, knowledge, and application are all reasons why people should apply and attend.