Lucy Bushill-Matthews

Lucy Bushill-Matthews Q&A: ‘Nearly 4,000 Muslims applied for financial aid in a month’

Lucy Bushill-Matthews, who became a Muslim while at university, is the author of Welcome to Islam: A Convert’s Tale. Photograph courtesy of Lucy Bushill-Matthews

The National Zakat Foundation’s chief operating officer talks about the challenges faced by charities during the cost of living crisis and the generosity of donors

Lucy Bushill-Matthews, 51, is the chief operating officer at the National Zakat Foundation. She is also the author of the book Welcome to Islam: A Convert’s Tale. At 19-years-old, while at Cambridge University, Bushill-Matthews embraced Islam, married and wore the hijab for the first time. 

Working in the third sector for the past 15 years, she specialises in finance and governance for a number of different charities. She has also delivered TED talks about her spiritual life and the ways mainstream society reacts toward people like her. 

The cost of living crisis has had a detrimental effect on charitable giving across the UK. In the past 12 months, the NZF received £5,419,540 in donations given by Muslims around the country, compared to £6,116,255 it has distributed — a shortfall of almost £700,000. In that same period, 20,494 people were being supported via zakat in the UK. Here, Bushill-Matthews explains how the organisation is helping Muslims in need. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

At what point did you know you wanted to convert to Islam?

In my second year at university at 19. It was a private, very personal realisation that I had gone through, an intellectual journey. I interacted with a lot of people, read a lot of books, and went to different talks. It became very clear for me that Islam was a holistic message for humanity: the fact that there is a oneness of God. The message in Christianity is much more confusing. The morality in Islam is very clear. 

What was the main idea behind your book, Welcome to Islam?

I felt there was a gap in a number of areas. I received so many questions from people who aren’t Muslim, such as “do you have to wear your scarf in the shower?” and “does your baby have to fast?”. I think that people feel comfortable enough to ask me those questions, particularly as somebody who’s got a lot of family and friends who aren’t Muslim. I’m conscious that the level of interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims is so low. 

Welcome to Islam was my very small attempt at just trying to portray Muslim life in an accessible way to people who aren’t Muslim. Another driver for the book was for converts. A lot of converts feel a strong sense of loneliness, so I wanted to show that the future is optimistic, that you can build up a community and can really feel part of something bigger.  

How does your faith inform your work at the NZF?

I’ve always had a very strong sense of social responsibility and I’ve felt, since university, that I wanted to work in the charity space. We at NZF think that zakat is an obligation and it’s really important, so we’re trying to manifest one of the pillars of Islam.

You give out food vouchers to those who need them. How many are you giving out this year, compared to last year, as the cost of living crisis continues? 

Only a tiny minority of people who can’t access a bank account or a post office get vouchers. For the rest, our hardship fund manages to get money directly to people’s bank accounts. The numbers have been shocking. On average, up until October 2022, we had about 1,500 people a month applying for help, which is a lot. We used to only help a few thousand across the whole year. In April 2023, we had nearly 4,000 people applying. The numbers are massive and behind every number is a very real story of tragedy and difficulty. It’s really a tough environment now. 

What else does the NZF do? 

We have a housing fund and a work and education fund. The housing fund helps Muslims with rent and deposits. The work and education fund helps Muslims who are looking to get support to access training or certain courses. NZF pays for conversion courses to make sure that people in need can use qualifications gained in other countries in the UK. There are some donors that give specifically for a certain fund, other donors let NZF decide and we look at where the need is. 

Have you seen a drop in the amount of donations this year?  

Our donors are giving based on their wealth. Generally, the majority of our donors will have been negatively affected and their wealth will have decreased. The average donation size has decreased slightly for the vast majority of our donors. Having said that, we have had many thousands of new donors this year and I think that is a positive side of the cost of living crisis. Donors and potential donors are realising that this is a problem in the UK and that’s where we’re living, so let’s start here. 

How has this affected NZF services?

The number of applications have increased so much, our donations have not increased in line with the amount of people applying. So at some point we are going to have to turn people away and that’s really hard because we want to be able to help people. Many charities are really struggling now. It’s just that the demand is so high that donations can’t keep up.

The 2021 United Kingdom census revealed that 39% of Muslims live in the most deprived areas of England and Wales. What is the NZF doing to reach them? 

We are only helping the people from that 39%. We are starting to implement a second method of working with community partners. For example, we have a partnership with Barking mosque where zakat funds are distributed by the mosque, so people can come there to receive funds. Our main model is online but we are trying to build this community model too.

There have been a number of interest rate hikes, meaning that people’s mortgages will be rising. What do you think the implications of that will be? 

With every increase in costs, whether that’s interest rates or the price of food, more people fall below the poverty threshold. If people fall below that threshold, are Muslim and resident in the UK, they can apply. We will check them and we will get the funds to them as soon as we can.

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