Microsoft man turns hand to charity

Website founder saw a gap in the way Islamic philanthropy is directed and created the means to channel funds for those in need.

UAE - Dubai - Nov 02 - 2010:  Masood A. Razaq founder of the website Goodgate, pose for a portrait at his house. ( Jaime Puebla - The National Newspaper )
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DUBAI // It has been a curious route to philanthropy for Masood Razaq, who went from a job advising Bill Gates at Microsoft to launching an online charity portal helping people to spend their charitable donations more wisely.

Mr Razaq, 35, quietly launched Goodgate during Ramadan, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in an effort to amalgamate philanthropic organisations across the Islamic world.

So far he has 1,400 listings on the site, which he is calling the "mini-Google" for charities in the region. Among the listings are 63 charities based in the UAE, many overdue for a boost in their public profile.

"It is ridiculous," he said, "that most people in Dubai can easily name five designer stores in their nearest mall but cannot list five UAE-based charities."

The website features videos and easy-to-navigate toolbars, a product of Mr Razaq's comprehensive IT background. And it is backed by a passion to help others that is reminiscent of his former boss, whose Gates Foundation is one of the world's largest private philanthropic organisations.

Mr Razaq believes the only way to make real change in this part of the world is to help direct people's philanthropy, as charity is the fourth pillar of Islam and the obligatory Muslim annual donation of Zakat and sadaqa - the optional giving - are such a big part of the faith.

"I want to spend my life tackling huge, big, complicated problems," he said. "And this is something that has been bothering me for 15 years. It is simply helping people to help each other, and helping humanity is definitely a big enough problem."

In 2008, American citizens gave away US$307 billion (Dh1.12 trillion) to charity - an average of $6bn a week. Although no such figures are available for the Muslim world, with a population of 1.5 billion people in more than 57 Muslim-majority countries, according to the Organisation of Islamic Conference, Mr Razaq estimates that as much as $100bn could be given away each year.

"No one really knows, but we are willing to put a stake in the ground to say it could be as much as that, and that kind of money needs to be managed," he said.

"In philanthropy in this part of the world there is no ecosystem, no infrastructure, which in the end could be wasteful.

"It's not enough just to have good intentions; we as Muslims have a responsibility to get our zakat to the poor, and if we are going to move the needle in this part of the world and make a real calculable difference to the poor, then we need strategic giving - we need to build the right tools."

Mr Razaq likens Goodgate, or Bab al Khayr, to a supermarket - a place of convenience where all philanthropic organisations are gathered. However there are no transactions made through the website, which is free to all users. Three months into the site's soft launch, it is too early for the charities listed on it to determine whether it had led to an increase in donations.

But Ohood al Suwaidi, the communications director for the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, child abuse and human trafficking that is listed on Goodgate, said the site was already helping "build bridges" between charities listed.

"Working together means we will complement each other, rather than just copying, and so come up with more effective services," she said.

Dr Peter Cleaves, the chief executive of the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy, a government-funded organisation listed on Goodgate, said: "This website is a creative use of modern technology to help rationalise traditional and modern ways that people and companies can give to worthy causes. I suspect that Goodgate will become a standard word in the Middle East philanthropic vocabulary."