For many donors, religion can be the “third rail” of modern philanthropy.
This isn't to say many gifts don't have some sort of religious component. Countless donors, of course, give to religious causes or point to faith as driving force behind their giving. But the slope can get slippery rather quickly, especially in the higher education space.
For example, it isn't very often you hear about gifts aimed at addressing “misunderstandings” among Islam, Judaism and Christianity at a major university. Few donors want to open that Pandora's Box. And who can blame them? The last 2,000 years have provided a sobering track record.
Then again, Rafat and Zoreen Ansari aren't your typical donors.
Not long ago, the Ansaris, medical doctors who were born in Pakistan, announced a $15 million gift to the University of Notre Dame to create the Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement With Religion. The institute will aim to deepen knowledge of religion and look to explain how the traditions and practice of various religions influence world events.
The Ansaris have spent the last 40 years in South Bend, Indiana. By their estimation, they have given at least $1 million and thousands of hours of their time to nonprofits focused on children with autism, which afflicts their youngest child, Sonya. "Having raised our family and built our lives in this community, so close to Notre Dame, we determined that now is the ideal time to partner with the University in this new way," Ansari said.
Gifts are rarely made in a vacuum, and this one, as Ansari himself noted, is no exception. "In the last couple of years, the majority of problems have been created by the misunderstandings among the religions," he said. "Is this the right time for the announcement? Yes, because there is so much going on."
According to Rev. John I. Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, the institute would look at religion not through a sociological or political lens, but through one focused "on the religions themselves."
This goal sounds laudable in theory, but it may be a bit more challenging to pull off in practice. As Ansari himself noted, the gift comes against the backdrop of searing socio-political issues. Is it possible to focus on the “religions themselves” fully stripped from this unavoidable context?
I raise this question not to take umbrage to the school's methodology, but to illustrate why donors generally shy away from such gifts in the first place—they can lead one down some tricky theological or sociological rabbit holes. Such gifts can also inflame passions across university campuses that increasingly resemble free speech tinderboxes, potentially turning off alumni donors in the process.
That being said, society could clearly benefit from more dialogue around the world's great faiths and the gift is perfectly attuned to the Zeitgeist of the times. But the Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion aims to be much more than one large comparative religion seminar. It will seek to bring tangible, real-world change, placing it squarely within the emerging “solutions philanthropy” paradigm across the higher ed space.
“Notre Dame is well positioned to understand and enhance the role of religions and religious people” in addressing systematic problems like poverty, displacement, and political violence, the Ansaris said.
R. Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School, concurs. “The Ansari Institute intends to change the conversation about religion—not by denying the troubling aspects of religious expression, but by directing attention to the vast good done by religions, and the even greater good they might accomplish in partnership with universities and other public and private institutions."