Monday, 30 November 2009

The Decline of the Befrienders Scheme

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Analysis of the Programme

The Befrienders Scheme was once one of the most phenomenally successful programmes at Darul Arqam Singapore.  At one time, it was the only consistently active volunteer programme running.  The legacy of the programme can be attested in the fact that a significant number of currently active volunteers, teachers, Council members and Executive Committee members are from this programme or were in some way involved in it.

The programme is actually a modified version of similar programmes found in churches and other volunteer organizations.  It was originally envisioned as part of a wider convert’s follow-up programme by Sheik Mustafa in that particular incarnation.  The pilot batch was a resounding success.  And the first few batches of volunteers were of good quality.

The current Befrienders’ Scheme is actually the 3rd incarnation of the programme by that name.  It has existed in some form or other in Darul Arqam Singapore for many, many years.  It was Sheik Mustafa and the resident social worker, Siti Maryam, who decided to tag it to the latent Beginner’s Course in Islam and that, is where the programme found its niche.

The initial recruitment had the most stringent standards and conditions.  One of the core principals was dedication.  This pilot programme was supposed to be the first phase of a converts’ follow-up programme.  It was recognised that almost all the major challenges of faith occur after conversion.

An analysis of past cases of apostasy and the patterns of the counseling cases indicated that in many cases, conversion actually damaged the support network of the converts.  The idea was to ‘be their friend’ and to recreate a support network whilst at the same time putting a framework for identifying potential cases that might require counseling early.  We are not replacing the support network.  We are supplementing it and trying to repair it.  You cannot, for example, replace the relationship with the parents.

That in itself was the reason the programme was initially managed with the support of the social worker / counselor.  The Befrienders were supposed to be the first line of contact.  The original plan was to carry it further by developing the post-Befriending period of the programme as part of the overall follow-up.

Conversion is a sensitive and very personal decision.  It is imperative for people to understand that a significant minority of these people who convert do not feel the need to highlight their conversion.  Many times, their parents, their colleagues or even their employers do not know.

Despite the official party line, the fact remains that in many parts of the government service, there are still no Muslims or they have a token, marginal presence.  Due to historical reasons and the realities of the current political climate, Muslims are still for the most part, distrusted.

The Selection of Volunteers

The volunteers were selected on a very stringent criterion to match the demographic of the attendees of the Beginner’s Class.  But, in the main, they had to be dedicated and they had to be flexible.  We wanted friends, not preachers.

Also, it was recognised that it is easier to lower standards but extremely difficult to raise them once they were slackened.  For this reason, the drop-out rate was high and the culling of unsuitable candidates was brutal for the pilot batch.

What is not generally known is that some of the initial batch of Befrienders was not even Muslims, although they eventually converted.  But there was a conscious effort to recruit between the mid-twenties to the late thirties to better match the age group of the students.  Also, we wanted people with working experience and who had been married.  Converts were preferred over born-Muslims to better establish the credibility of the Befrienders.

The Mechanics of the Programme

The Beginners’ Course in Islam is the primary programme for those who want to convert to Islam.  At that time, it was once a week for 15 weeks.  This included one mosque visit and a practical swalah and wudhu demonstration.

The class begins at 2000h on weekdays for an hour and a half.  At 2130h, the students were released and highly encouraged to join the Befriending circles.  They would be introduced to the Befrienders for the first week and there would be a structured discussion based on a pre-set series of topics.

Every 7th and 15th week, there would be session with catered food to better facilitate interaction.  The session would be held from after maghrib before the class began.  If there was a mosque visit, it took up almost all of the class.  Same with the swalah and wudhu demonstration.

The BCI course has since been amended to 10 weeks.  The swalah and wudhu demonstration has been removed since a swalah tutorial covering both has been appended to the course.  The mosque visit is no longer integral.

There was a briefing before the start of the class (after maghrib) and another one after the Befriending session ended.  There used to be a separate day for discussion of the topics.  The purpose of the briefing was to compare notes on the Befriendees, how to deal with the topics and any other issues that may arise.

The most important aspect of the Befrienders Scheme was supposed to be the post-Befriending period.  And that is why initially, Befrienders were banned from doing a cycle immediately after the end of the current one to focus on the Befriendees.  They had to plan at least two social events within a 2 month period.  Depending n their rapport with the Befriendees and the skill in which they planned the programme, the attendance varied.

What went Wrong?

How do you measure the success of the programme?  By the following criteria: -

Attendance of the volunteers: There is a dearth of volunteers for the programme.  It is so dire that for the second half of 2009, there has been no Befriending whatsoever.  The recruitment was a failure and the retention of previous volunteers is abject.

Attendance of the Befriendees: The key indicator of how good your Befrienders are is the retention rate of the Befriendees.  You cannot say the programme is working if at the end of the cycle, no relationship has developed.  If by the middle of a cycle, the attendance to the break-out session declines precipitously, there is something wrong.  It impacts on the morale of the Befriender and the failure becomes cyclical.  At the end, the volunteer does not come back.  If they are new, they might even leave halfway.

The converts’ follow-up rate: By these criteria, the Befrienders’ Scheme has been a failure for a long time already.  It has simply become a programme that has been run for the sake of being something on the budget and the AOP.  How many of these converts have come back t Darul Arqam Singapore in any sort of capacity?  Most of the time, we never see them again.  Or worse, when they end up in Shari’ah Court because of divorce or as another statistic - an apostasy case.

The 2 Main Reasons: Lack of Understanding of the Programme’s Position and Lack of Focus

The decline and ultimate failure of the Befrienders’ Scheme can be attributed to two main areas.  One of them is the lack of understanding of the programme’s position in the entire context of conversion and converts’ development.  The programme out of necessity remained autonomous since the volunteers needed to think outside of the box when dealing with a fluid series of event involving people’s lives.  But it was never meant to stand alone.  It was mean to complement an entire converts’ follow-up programme and the counseling unit.

The other primary reason for the failure of the programme is the loss of focus.  Convert’s Development Division itself does not do any convert development.  The entire Annual Operating Plan of CDD does not have a primary programme dealing with converts’ development.  CDD should rightly be renamed ‘Welfare Division’.  When the entire division has lost focus of its primary function, it is almost impossible for the programmes to be on track.

Over the course of several years and many cycles, the focus of the Befrienders’ Scheme had moved from the post-Befriending and converts’ follow-up to the presentation of the weekly topics.  The ceased to become the friends and started to become the preachers.

The Discussion Topics are Irrelevant

The topics of the Befriending sessions are outdated and a distraction of the primary purpose of the session.  Some of the topics are presumptuous.  For example: Would you leave Islam after conversion if your boyfriend or girlfriend left you?  This is insulting since it assumes that everybody converts because of relationships.  It shows the failure to understand that whilst relationships may be the catalyst, it is overall simplistic to assume that people convert because of that.

Furthermore, whilst the world had changed, the topics became concretized.  In the aftermath of September 11th, there was a wonderful opportunity to address the issue of terrorism since people were converting to a ‘terrorist’ religion.  Unfortunately, it was decided that it be best to avoid it altogether for fear of controversy.  In terms of public relations, it was a disaster.  It implied that Islam had something to hide.


The Quality of Volunteer Recruitment has Declined

It is always easier to lower the bar rather than raise it.  With the loss of focus, it was inevitable that the volunteer retention and recruitment would ultimately fail.  Since they have no idea the raison d'être for the programme, the demographic matching became irrelevant and was eventually discarded.

This presented a problem on several fronts.  The commitment of the volunteers declined.  Morale became a problem since they were unable to identify why Befriendees started skipping or simply refused to come for the sessions.  Their commitment waned.  There have been several times when they have trained an entire cohort but due to mismanagement of the schedule, the volunteers have not turned up for the actual Befriending.

The Befrienders have focused too much on the topics without understanding the psychology of the people considering converting to Islam.  Furthermore, the demographic of the Befriender was not compatible with the demographics of the Befriendees.  Far too many were too young with little understanding of the challenges of conversion.

Volunteer Development is Curtailed

Darul Arqam Singapore’s strength during its development has always been the volunteer spirit.  The constant flow of volunteers engendered a family atmosphere within the organization.  People who volunteer must be part of the dynamic process of organizational development.  Make them feel like genuine stakeholders in the process and not only will they come, they will stay.

The added responsibility of developing, running and managing programmes help them to develop skills and add to a shared organizational memory - the proverbial Learning Organization that our Civil Service is always talking about in the 1990s and early part of this decade.  In return, as they develop, it is hoped that some of them can contribute by sitting on the policy-making body of the organization - the Council itself.

One of the mistakes that Ridzuan Wu’s old Executive Committee made was in deciding to have more staff and giving them executive control over the programmes.  The net result is that the volunteers (including the Council and Executive Committee have become complacent) and the programmes have stagnated.  To the staff, this is just a job, not a calling.  It is not in their interest to make things difficult by tweaking what already ‘works’.

With the influx of volunteers stilled, Darul Arqam Singapore has become less dynamic and the flow of ideas has stagnated.  The people who work there or are part of the establishment (such as many on the Council) are simply unable to think outside of the box, enact a paradigm shift and identify the problems, let alone solve them.  There is not a single volunteer programme developed by the staff that is an unqualified success.

With the staff in charge, there is an autocratic set-up of the system.  As people are wont to do, they only work with people they are comfortable with.  As a result, it can be argued there is an inherent prejudice within the system.  Consequently, new ideas have become an anathema.  This has contributed to cyclical decline.

Recommendation?  Or Inevitable Outcome

It is quite obvious that the programme has become a waste of funds.  It has had a glorious run bit it has since become irrelevant.  Just like the previous incarnations of the programme over the last two decade, there is a need to relook the system.  Of course, the most likely outcome is that the programme will die a natural death.  There will be a cut back of the Befriending sessions corresponding with a cut in budget.  And then, one day, it disappears from the budget.

Darul Arqam’s Befrienders Video

12 comments:

  1. I am not sure about the full history but two points I do agree, out-dated questions and lack of retention capabilities of the befrienders. Doing a befienders night each year just don't make the cut to retain talent. Is there KPIs for the Befriending program? In general, things will work better if there is KPIs attached to the poeple who is holding various positions.

    It is in a sad state and in need of a rude-awakening.

    I want to read more on the details of "Be There" if not u will be "The idiot that can criticize" :-P

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  2. Assalamu'Alaikum,

    Darul Arqam itself does not have a well articulated Vision, Mission and Core Values, let alone proper KPIs for individual programmes.

    I am trying to apply corporate standards to programmes and analyze them in context.

    We are trying to do a paradigm shift by throwing everything out and starting from scratch. Not just for the 'Be There' but the entire Da'wah Programme we are doing.

    It is by extension, a part of the entire 'Virtual Darul Arqam' programme envisioned and currently being carried out.

    It is not enough to attract these people to Islam, we have to manage their expectations and help them along.

    I have been a convert, I have been a Befriender, I have been a teacher in Darul Arqam and an Ustadz elsewhere, I have been a Council member and an ExCo member, been a para-counselor, an evaluator and pre-cnversion advisor.

    Additionally, I have been in corporate imaging and branding as well as done standards management such as ISO, and I am a business owner.

    I am trying to apply everything that I have ever learnt to make something that works. And it is challenging.

    Insha'Allah, the first order of business is to articulate the framework and build a management team capable of running it.

    The Be There programme is actually in process and the idea is to see if it can be running by the start of the next Wednesday's BCI. And we are doing this despite the current climate of incompetency at DA. That is the challenge.

    Wassalam

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  3. May Allah swt grant you His assistance in whatever good that you plan for the Community. ameen...

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  4. Salam,

    Thank you brother for an excellent analysis. may Allah reward you with every goodness.

    May Allah SWT also grant you success and guidance.

    Alhamdulillah you have consulted a very senior and experienced activist in Sheik (is he also mudpie?). And are theer many other senior activists who may still be around whom we could or should be consulting? Past successes od DA should be remembered with gratitude and learnt from (which your analysis correctly emphasizes) - not conveniently neglected nor forgotten.

    Especially I've heard not just this Befrienders' scheme but other schemes too (sort of an interconnected but one single overall scheme) : from activist recruitment thru' the annual IIC (Islam & it's challenges), to post IIC (activists training program), to their deployment with special training in CCS (Class co-ordinators scheme); Orientator's training course prior to them being assigned to conduct the Orientation program; the Assessors' training and then to be part of the Converts Assessment program; counselling course, Solat tiutorial. etc. even TTC (Teachers' Training course for those who later conduct the BCI)... etc.

    We need to adequately know the past before proceeding to plan the future.

    May All assist us all.

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  5. Wa'Alaikumus Salaam,

    Thank you, Blue. Amin.

    With regards to Anon:

    1. Sheik Mustafa was my BCI Teacher when I was in the process of converting. He is a good friend and a mentor of sorts.

    2. The other programmes that you have mentioned are from the defunct Da'wah Division. The current President thought it an excellent idea to merge Education and Da'wah Divisions. The result: our classes are not very good and we have no da'wah programmes whatsoever.

    3. The standards of the teachers at Darul Arqam have also fallen overall. There is no implementation of standards the way Dr. Hikmatullah, Prof. Manutty and Ust. Jamal did to accredit teachers before they were qualified to teach.

    The Orientation is now known as Knowing Islam Session (KIS).If there is an Orientators' Training Course or equivalent, I do not know of it. The current management fail to realize that the 'Orientation' is actually trickier to teach than the BCI, therefore the standard should be higher. Likewise, if there is a TTP, again, I am not aware of it.

    4. The IIC has steadily declined, lost its focus and has experienced a remission in standards. Like many programmes, it has not been updated to the current climate, the target audience is irrelevant to the core demographic of the organization and they have been unable to utilize any developments arising from the IIC for anything other than presenting more papers. In short, it is a failure.

    The way I look at it, Darul Arqam is in cyclical decline. There is no leadership and no direction. Programmes are implemented quarter to quarter, year on year.

    As a convert, if we screw this up, we do not have another 30 years to build another Darul Arqam.

    Wassalam

    If there

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  6. Salam Bro.

    Thank you for your elaboration, but I have yet to know your response to my inquiry:

    "And are there many other senior activists who may still be around whom we could or should be consulting?"

    Do you know who these people are, and where they are right now? Is it still possible for us to consult them?

    Could the past history of Darul, have been purposely suppressed by subsequent leadership? - as the saying goes: 'History, it seems, is always written by conquerors'

    Younger activists should, at least out of courtesy if not to learn - seek them out and pay due respect, if they are still around. Not acknowledging them is a display of arrogance and may tantamount to being ungrateful. Those who cannot be grateful to fellow humans cannot be grateful to Allah. How then can we deserving of Barakah.

    May Allah bless you and all of us.

    Wassalam

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  7. I really would like to see accountability being part of the whole system in Darul and it should. Organization shouldn't be shy in rooting out non-performers just because they are volunteers and besides staff. It is a painful process but I feel what is left after rooting out the non-performer will be the ones that meet the bar.

    I also agree in consultation with the "elders" to learn lessons and draw their experience. I am not sure what transpire when the befrienders steering committee meet and discuss but one that deserved to be discussed is definitely the effort in retaining the befrienders is sorely lacking. You can see that those that remain either has good friends in the scheme or participating in other Darul programs.

    I really wish that we will have an improvement soon in the future. I see great benefits on all fronts when the befriending program is active. Hopefully it is jolted up again from either exco or councils.

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  9. Wa’Alaikumus Salaam,

    Anon, in response to your query, firstly the term ‘senior’ is quite relative in context. If I may, I understand you are referring to those before my time. I came to Darul Arqam just after Ust. Zulkiflee and his cohort left.

    In any case, there are still many people in Darul Arqam who are quite senior to me there although it would be impractical to ‘consult’ all of them. Furthermore, seniority does not always equal competency or knowledge.

    I speak regularly with Sheik, but we talk abut everything from the mundane to the esoteric. Not necessarily Darul Arqam. I have made an effort to correspond regularly with many of the people who have knowledge and standing from the previous era such as Cikgu Sa’at, Ust. Zul, Razees, Ust. Jamal, Faisal Fernandez, even Ridzuan.

    I do not believe that there is any suppression of the history of the Association, merely ignorance and malaise. If you are talking about the politics and the feuds, I am well aware of what happened from ALL sides. I even know the history of Kumpulan Saudara Baru and the first President (not Ridzuan). I never listen to one side of a story; I do not get involved with them as far as possible. Darul Arqam is supposed to be bigger than all that.

    Even Ridzuan and I do not agree on many things. But I do respect the fact that he was instrumental in building the organization. Yes, there have been and there are many mistakes. And we have spoken at length about it. But the issue is we are trying to fix it. Many of the other converts have simply left. But if all the good, capable people leave because they do not like what happens, where does that leave The Muslim Converts’ Association of Singapore?

    Also, with regards younger volunteers seeking out the older ones, it is only practical if they are still involved and current. Respect is earned by ability, competency and integrity. Not seniority, position, wealth, paper knowledge or any other arbitrary indicators.

    If, however, in the capacity of policy-making, it is imperative to understand the context of why certain decisions were made and particular directions taken in the course of the evolution of the organization. Then, I make it a point to speak to the people who were there.

    But I like your last point. No matter where we go, we must never forget where we came from. I believe that there should be a better effort to acknowledge the people that made Darul Arqam what it is today.

    Whether it is volunteer or staff. It is their passion and sacrifice that helped to build this. And that is why I make an effort every Shawal, for example to visit those I can such as Razees, Cikgu Sa’at and even Shahira Khoo before.

    Amin for the blessings and I hope that the past volunteers would see fit to come back and secure their legacy.

    Wassalam

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  10. Assalamu’Alaikum Jeff,

    Firstly, I agree with you whole-heartedly that there is a need for greater accountability at all levels of the Association. However, how do we define these non-performers without any adequate measure? Do you think a non-performing ExCo and an inadequate President is able to come up with these measures? I doubt it. They have not been able to do it for 2 terms. But is an issue that has it be dealt with at a policy / management level.

    What we can do, is make ourselves as volunteers accountable by implementing our own set of Values. Asking them to develop Vision and Mission statements is premature and beyond the current capabilities of our volunteers and staff as a whole. They do not understand them beyond the superficial sense and it would detract from the overall effort - a Dilbert scenario.

    The Befrienders Steering Committee has got to make difficult decisions and be brutal about it. But they must also relook the entire context of Befriending and re-evaluate the programme as a whole. What is their purpose of having this programme? Are they able to do a paradigm shift? Are they able to understand the target demographic? Do they even have any converts there or enough converts there? Are they even able to see the problem?

    Retention of volunteers is not the issue. It is a symptom of the problem as a whole. Fix that, raise the recruitment standards (better the quality few than the many dross), revamp the programme. In short, reboot. Dare they do that?

    ExCo / Council have major issues coming up. The Befrienders Scheme is the least of the problems. The Steering Committee is on its own and that is actually good. I wish them all the best.

    Wassalam

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  11. Must always remember, nothing can be accomplished without Allah's permission. Seek help from Allah, only He knows what is best and only He what is in our hearts.

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  12. Must remember why we are doing all this. Do for Allah's sake. For this World is only temporary, what we are really want is the hereafter. If Allah's wills, i will come down to meet up with the community.

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