Alumni Spotlight: Tammam Alwan, Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research
Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to publishing authentic academic content about Islam and Muslims and providing reliable resources aimed at dismantling common misconceptions and doubts about the faith and its community. Yaqeen Institute believes that nurturing conviction in one’s faith can inspire positive change and contribution to society as a whole. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with alumnus Tammam Alwan, Director of Development at Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, about his experiences working in the nonprofit sector and his time in CPNL’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program.
Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership (CPNL): With so many great causes to champion within the nonprofit sector, what drew you to work at Yaqeen Institute?
Alwan: Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research is a unique organization because it’s the only Islamic think tank that works on an international level and maintains a global impact. It addresses issues relevant to the roots of Islamophobia and the misconceptions that surround Islam and Muslims. Working at Yaqeen was a decision I made without hesitation. It’s an inspiring organization that saves lives. Let me explain how. Whenever an ethnic, religious, gender, or even class group is dehumanized within a country, when their lives are no longer deemed to have any worth, that does not only impact domestic policy. It impacts foreign policy as well, leading to discrimination, death, and suffering. Here at Yaqeen, we clarify misconceptions about Islam and Muslims to show the truth about and diversity of our religion. We write our own narrative. The work can be really difficult and challenging, as there are several prominent Islamophobic think tanks supported by millions of dollars from Islamophobic and anti-immigrant foundations, while we’re standing alone. I should add that we not only publish academic, peer-reviewed research of a high quality. We also break the research down into animated videos, infographic summaries, talk toolkits, and school curriculum so people can actually engage with the material at an accessible level. That’s a part of empowering Muslims to be able to speak for themselves.
CPNL: How is diversity important in the work that you’re doing at the Yaqeen Institute?
Alwan: Diversity is at the core of what we do, represented by two of our five values: intellectual integrity and neutrality. We don’t seek to represent Islam as a monolith. In fact, our scholars, senior fellows, our staff come from a diverse range of positions within Islamic orthodoxy. We aren’t fully in agreement on every issue, and our researchers are given the space to disagree. For example, a scholar may publish a paper, and another will respond to disagree with them in a respectful way. We have open letters to the editor as well. That’s to show there is an allowance of difference of opinion within our communities and within Yaqeen Institute. This is also a part of the internal culture fostered among staff and volunteers where a diversity of thought is valued and encouraged.
CPNL: Since leaving the certificate program, what work have you done that you’re most proud of?
Alwan: I think I’m most proud of my capstone project. It really challenged me to synthesize what I learned in the certificate program and was very practical, definitely applicable to my work at Yaqeen Institute. I learned a lot of things during the program, so being able to actually implement them was like studying the theory and then putting it into practice. When you put it into practice, you naturally face challenges. I personally strive on those challenges, and it gave me an opportunity to grow. I encourage future participants to give their capstones the time and effort needed to make it relevant to their work and a means for their personal and professional development.
CPNL:What is one significant challenge you faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?
Alwan: I think one significant challenge that I faced, and is commonly face by leaders in the nonprofit sector, is being able to step away from the day-to-day grind daily to take time and connect our work to the overall, long-term strategy of our organizations. I think that it’s tremendously important because movement does not mean progress – we can’t equate the two. So, to be able to step back and see how what we’re doing fits into the greater scheme of things, how everyone from the volunteer to the staff member to the board member plays a role in the whole process, moving like one hand, that’s a challenge. It’s not something I think any organization has perfected, but as long as they’re constantly striving to get to that point where everything connects, they’ll experience tremendous success.
CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?
Alwan: The program helped me in two major ways. One, intellectually, because it exposed me to trends in the nonprofit sector, the latest research, and some of the best practices I wasn’t aware of prior. I think the second aspect is the network of highly skilled, talented individuals in the program. They truly make it great. I was honored to be in the cohort last summer. I was honored to learn from them and their experiences – to me that was incredibly special. The Program challenged me to think differently about my work, and that’s priceless.
CPNL: What advice would you give to other professionals who are considering participating in the certificate program?
Alwan: I would suggest that they take full advantage of the program. I recommend for those who don’t have a lot of experience in the nonprofit sector to get at least a year or two under their belts before pursuing it and to also do a local program if available that introduces them to the areas of nonprofit work such as development, talent management, and strategic planning. That way, they can at least get their feet wet. I think that, if I hadn’t done that before I participated in the Georgetown program, I wouldn’t have benefited as much. The Certificate Program is a wonderful opportunity and I hope that organizations, either fully or partially, commit to helping their staffs have these kinds of engaging, academic, professional development experiences. Really, it’s an investment that will benefit the organization at least tenfold.