Naser Haghamed visiting Islamic Relief projects in Yemen

After nearly five years as Islamic Relief Worldwide’s CEO and 27 years with the organisation, it’s time to say thank you and goodbye to Naser Haghamed as he steps down from his role. We asked him 10 questions about his time as CEO:

You’ve been with Islamic Relief for 27 years. How has the organisation changed in that time?

We are a completely different organisation. I joined as IT manager and there were 15 or so people in our Birmingham office. We didn’t even have enough PCs for everyone – people queued up to use a PC to send a message or print a document! Now we’re a truly international office with 150 people and we have Islamic Relief partners in the USA, Canada and all over the world. We’ve set up the Humanitarian Academy for Development (HAD), the International Waqf fund, our TIC shops operation… we have completely transformed.

What’s your proudest achievement?

Islamic Relief’s work is a team effort. I’m proud that we’ve managed to create a strong team with a strong Board of Directors and an environment where so many people are happy to work. We have marvellous staff and they and our volunteers are responsible for everything we’ve achieved.

Our programmes have achieved so much. In Yemen we support 2 million people with food every month and we are the UN World Food Programme’s largest NGO partner. We’ve continued to operate inside Syria, despite the extreme difficulties, and the team has done amazing work there, as well as in other challenging places like Gaza, Afghanistan, Somalia and South Sudan. Our programme impact has been recognised with various awards and repeated certification under the coveted Core Humanitarian Standard.

What’s your most memorable field visit?

As CEO I travelled a lot – there’s nothing that inspires and motivates you more than when you see the difference that Islamic Relief is making to millions of people’s lives. The trip that made tears come to my eyes was visiting Niger in 2019. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world. I visited an area about an hour and a half drive from the capital and then we drove through a bright green field – it stretched on and on for acres of land. Our staff explained that the area used to be a desert until, in 2007, our founder Dr Hany planted a tree to start a project there. More than a decade on, we’ve helped it grow into vast green land and it’s had huge long-term sustainable impact. I met the local community and saw their joy. I’ll never forget the trip.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Your staff are your greatest assets. Listen to them, work with them and address their needs and they will get on with the job. Team work is much more important than any individual success.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

The last year has been difficult. First we went into lockdown, and although I’m an introvert I found it difficult. Then alongside that we had some challenges with unacceptable social media posts from former trustees and their departure, and at the same time my mum was severely ill and was admitted to hospital three times. It was hard to get updates and difficult to visit her because of the pandemic. It was one of the most challenging times of my life.

What are your hopes for Islamic Relief in future?

We have the potential to grow and to do a lot more. We have strong public trust, especially among the Muslim community, and people are very supportive of our work. Last year our income grew despite all the challenges. But like all organisations there are areas where we can improve. We can get even faster in our response to emergencies, especially in the first few days and weeks when people are most in need of shelter, food and water. We also want to make our programmes more sustainable so that fewer people need ongoing support and the environment is better protected. I also hope we continue to promote localisation, which is one of the most important humanitarian agendas of the last few years, and empower more national and local organisations.

To our supporters I would like to say thank you and please continue to support us – your donation is in safe hands. We are always looking at ways to improve so don’t hesitate to hold us accountable – ask us for information and reports on where your money has gone.

What advice would you give your successor?

Globally we have amazing people everywhere. Fostering a culture of innovation, teamwork and empowerment helps everyone to flourish. We need to look after staff wellbeing – not just at head office but at all our field offices as well. We also need to have a better gender balance at director level and in our leadership.

What do you most wish you’d done but never got chance to do?

Our digital transformation has become so important during lockdown and I wish we were further ahead with that. Remote working is here to stay for many staff and we need to have strong digital systems and processes to promote remote working and collaboration. We also had plans to improve our culture of coaching and mentoring and succession planning, which we haven’t yet been able to fully implement.

What do you plan to do on your first day of not being CEO?

I will stay in bed! Seriously, I am looking forward to doing more exercise and looking after my wellbeing. During the first lockdown I started walking after work – sometimes on my own and sometimes with my wife and children – but it’s stopped in the last couple of months. I also want to start using the treadmill – I’ve got it out but haven’t used it yet!

How has your faith played a role in your work as CEO? 

Everything is based on our faith. Islamic teaching encourages us to help others in different ways and is reflected in all of our values. For me this drives a feeling of always wanting to do the best we can for people in need – we need to make sure our processes and systems don’t delay support reaching people who are hungry. We have to do everything we can to make sure the money goes out as quickly as possible to reach people with practical aid and support.