Muslim Leaders Launch Incubator for Women in Nonprofits
An incubation program session at Rabata’s building in Arden Hills. Courtesy of Rabata

Muslim Leaders Launch Incubator for Women in Nonprofits

Co-led by Muslim nonprofits Rabata and RISE, the program is aimed at helping women turn early ideas into sustainable nonprofits.

Accelerators and incubators abound in the Twin Cities, but they tend to have a limited focus. If you’re working in tech, food science, or finance, for instance, you’ll find no shortage of programs here. But that leaves out a wide swath of enterprising individuals in other industries. That’s why Tamara Gray and Nausheena Hussain last year created a new incubator program geared toward Muslim women working in the nonprofit sector.

The pilot program, which ran from August 2021 through July of this year, led a cohort of 13 Muslim women working at Minnesota-based nonprofit groups. The aim of the program is to turn their early-stage ideas into sustainable nonprofit organizations. Throughout the program, participants refined their elevator pitches and learned how to set and reach fundraising goals. The leaders of the program say the first round has motivated them to hold another iteration this year.

“The concept of incubation and acceleration is mostly used right now for tech companies,” said Gray, founder of Arden Hills-based nonprofit Rabata. “We had this idea that it’s something that we could do for nonprofits.”

Both Gray and Hussain found a common theme among the Muslim women they worked with: Many of them had identified a community issue they wanted to solve, but they often lacked the knowledge or experience to solve it. “We didn’t feel Muslim women were centered in these programs and felt like the environment wasn’t conducive to their lived experiences or their identities,” said Hussain, founder of Minneapolis-based Reviving Sisterhood for Islamic Empowerment (RISE). “Wouldn’t it be cool if two Muslim women who run successful nonprofits open up that space and help make things a little bit easier to access?”

The incubation program in session

Of course, it’s not an entirely novel idea to apply the accelerator model to the nonprofit space. There have been dozens of nonprofit-focused programs over the years, such as Fast Forward, which caters to tech nonprofits. But Gray and Hussain say their program differs from other offerings in its focus on Muslim women specifically.

The program was partly funded by St. Paul-based nonprofit Otto Bremer Trust. The trust matched another donor’s grant of $25,000, which went into launching the pilot. “Both Rabata and RISE proposed innovative ways of working with populations they know well and to which they have a demonstrated track record of service. We were pleased to help them continue their work,” said Otto Bremer Trust spokesman David Hakensen.

Rabata, which provides Muslim women with educational and spiritual development, already had an existing education portal. The incubator used the portal to provide a curriculum to go over essential nonprofit leadership skills like recruiting and retaining board members, budget training, and fundraising management. The founders say that one of the most successful sessions was on pitch training.

Malika Dahir, former executive director of Pearls of Hope Community Center in Fridley and program participant, said that fundraising efforts were a weak spot for her prior to the program. “I just didn’t want to ask anyone for money. I didn’t feel confident or able,” said Dahir. After the program, Pearls of Hope doubled its fundraising goal of $25,000, she said. With the extra funding, the community center granted more scholarships to children and raised the pay of its instructors. “I felt empowered to invite people to invest in an organization I was passionate about,” said Dahir. “It was a great group of women and great content as far as the lessons. I feel that much more knowledgeable having been a participant.”

Before the execution of the program, at least 77% of the nonprofits involved were fiscally unstable and 67% didn’t have an annual fund plan, according to Gray. By the program’s conclusion, 83% of the organizations involved were able to increase their staffing, volunteers, and funding.

“Every single mission is different. But the whole purpose of a nonprofit organization is that it’s social entrepreneurship–it’s making people’s lives better. And when you make people’s lives better, they then interact in the economy in a more positive way,” said Gray. “It’s our responsibility as community leaders or community stewards to say, ‘Okay, come on over here, I’m going to provide for you a way to be successful in this thing and to solve the problem that you’ve identified in the best way that I can.’”

The program directors plan to replicate the program this year with hopes to expand the program to founders in greater Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest. They also aim to provide a “step two” for its first cohort, so they can continue to elevate their nonprofit organizations.

“When I see this opportunity to help other Muslim women, it just gives me hope,” said RISE’s Hussain. “I can’t transform the world alone–I can’t even transform Minnesota alone. But I can make small steps to make some sort of impact during my lifetime. And if I take other women along with me on this journey, it’ll have such a large impact.”

The program’s first participants were: