The national philanthropy world learned about Zoreen and Rafat Ansari in 2017 when they gave $15 million to the University of Notre Dame to launch the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, a scholarly center focused on nurturing better understanding of the world’s religions and the roles they play in world events. To those in South Bend, Ind., however, the Ansaris have well known as committed and reliable philanthropic leaders for four decades.
“The two words that come to mind are ‘influencer’ and ‘champion,’” says Matt Harrington, president and CEO of Logan Community Resources, a South Bend nonprofit that serves children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. “They’re well respected in our community, and they’ve touched lives in so many ways. People know that causes they’re associated with are worthwhile.”
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“The two words that come to mind are ‘influencer’ and ‘champion,’” says Matt Harrington, CEO of Logan Community Resources, a South Bend nonprofit that serves children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. “They’re well respected in our community, and they’ve touched lives in so many ways. People know that causes they’re associated with are worthwhile.”
The Ansaris have given a total of approximately $30 million to charity so far. In addition to their Notre Dame gift, they primarily support nonprofits that help people with autism and other disabilities, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Michiana, Memorial Hospital, local hospice organizations, and other nonprofits that benefit people in the greater South Bend area.
Fundraising and Family Philanthropy Tips From Rafat and Zoreen Ansari
- Although it is easier to go to the same affluent donors year after year, Rafat Ansari says charities should not bombard the same group of rich supporters with gift requests every time they need something because they risk alienating those donors. Instead, he says, fundraisers should conduct deeper research into which affluent people in the community are not giving much to charity but could afford to, and then find ways to draw them in.
“Leaders who are raising funds have to come up with some more creative ideas as to how to expand their donors,” Rafat Ansari says. “In a small town it is harder, but if they work at it, they can find new people who would be willing to tap into their resources.”
- Fundraisers should approach wealthy donors with a gift request to support something that will excite them and align with their interests, Rafat says. To discover what is going to pique donors’ interest, learn everything you can about the donors before approaching them.
“Try to find out what it is they are passionate about and learn about their interests” and think about how those interests might align with the organization’s work, he says. “That way they feel that now they are donating to something that may remain as a legacy in their family beyond them.”
- Start your children early on the course to giving with small donations to projects they will understand — like a local charity or toward a fundraiser at their school, Zoreen Ansari says. Then, when they get a bit older, encourage them to give a little more. “It doesn’t have to be big donations,” she says. “It could be $1 at a time, or if they want to donate $5 or $10 that they earn by babysitting or something; just take it one step at a time.”
- Rafat Ansari recommends that donors involve their children in giving decisions. “If you have a foundation or some kind of a giving budget, let the kids be involved so they see how you give and why you give,” he says. “They may have something to say about the places where you give.”
“We were not born in this town, but we wanted to make sure that since we came to this town we would be actively involved in the town’s activities and social events and, at the same time, the needs of the town,” says Rafat Ansari, a respected oncologist and hematologist. In 1984, he helped found the Hoosier Cancer Research Network, a research nonprofit that streamlines the clinical-trials process for cancer patients, and he also serves as a volunteer clinical associate professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
The couple give their largest gifts directly and make smaller donations through their $1.7 million Rafat and Zoreen Ansari Charitable Foundation, which awarded nearly $250,000 in 2022, according to Rafat Ansari. The Ansaris also support two elementary schools in Sindh, Pakistan, and they give to and volunteer with a medical group that helps Syrians living in refugee camps in Lebanon.
The couple grew up in Pakistan. Although their families knew each other, it wasn’t until they were medical students that their relationship blossomed.
Zoreen, a retired family physician and advocate for people with autism, is the daughter of the late Sayed Ghulam Mustafa Shah, a prominent scholar and education leader who served as Pakistan’s federal education minister in the late 1980s.
Rafat is from a family of physicians. His father, Ali Mohamed Ansari, is a respected orthopedic surgeon in Karachi who formerly served as Pakistan’s director general of health. Earlier in his career, he was dean of the medical school at Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences and later dean of Dow Medical College. Rafat is one of 11 children, eight of whom are physicians.
Rafat attended medical school at Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences with Zoreen’s brother, Sayed Rafique Mustafa Shah, a close friend who helped bring the two together. Rafat came to the United States in the late 1970s to complete his medical residency at Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago and a fellowship at Indiana University Medical Center. The couple carried on a long-distance relationship for several years. They married in 1981 in Karachi, where Zoreen had just earned her medical degree at Dow Medical College.
The Ansaris settled near South Bend and began their medical careers. They also started a family. Zoreen gave birth to their first two children, Sarah and Adam, while she was a medical resident and to their third, Sonya, after Zoreen had started a family medical practice. Doctors told the Ansaris that their youngest child had severe autism and that she was unlikely to ever walk, talk, or live independently. Grief-stricken for a time, the couple refused to accept the limitations placed on Sonya’s life and potential.
The Ansaris set about trying to find help for Sonya. But it was the 1990s, and autism wasn’t well understood. The couple soon learned autism experts were scarce and that even with their considerable resources and professional networks, finding treatment nearby wasn’t going to be easy.
The couple did research and visited physicians across the country. With a heavy heart, Zoreen decided to give up her medical practice so she could devote her time to Sonya’s needs and those of their other two children.
“There were lots of challenges. But every challenge was important because it made us who we are today, and it helped us to think about the well-being of other autistic kids,” Zoreen says. “There was nothing available in town or even in surrounding areas at that time, nor was research available. There was not enough awareness; I think that awakened us to this need.”
‘Their Voice Is Confident’
Their struggle to find assistance for Sonya led the Ansaris to Logan Community Resources, a South Bend nonprofit that serves children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They donated large sums to help the organization expand its services. In 2008 they gave about $1 million to establish the Sonya Ansari Center for Autism, which today provides an array of therapeutic and other services for people with autism. It also offers resources and training programs for parents, teachers, and others who work with people who have autism. Sonya, who is now 30, defied her early prognosis and lives a full and happy life with assistance.
We were not born in this town, but we wanted to make sure that we would be actively involved in the needs of the town.
“Sonya’s living a meaningful life right now because we were fortunate and could help her,” Zoreen says. “Once we saw Sonya’s assisted development and her accomplishments, that inspired us to do something for the well-being of adults and kids to improve and give a value to their lives, too.”
The Ansaris continue to support Logan’s work as donors and volunteers. They have become advocates promoting awareness about intellectual disability and major fundraisers for the organization. They host small gatherings at their homes in Granger, Ind., and Naples, Fla., where Logan officials speak to potential donors about the organization’s work. The Ansaris also support the STARability Foundation, a Naples charity that provides services to intellectually disabled people.
The Ansaris have co-hosted and introduced others to Logan’s big annual “Garden Party” fundraiser. Their connections in South Bend social and professional circles have helped Logan go from raising about $50,000 during the event’s early years to more than $700,000 at last year’s event, according to Harrington, the group’s CEO. He notes that Rafat also helped Logan land a $100,000 donation from a local donor.
“They’ve been great about connecting us to others,” Harrington says. “They’ve never wanted to do it alone. I think they realize the importance they have as influencers, but they’ve never stood up in a room and said, ‘We’ve done this for Logan.’ It’s never that. They’re really humble. But when it’s time to speak, their voice is confident, and they know they’re speaking for many families that don’t have the opportunity to be that voice.”
Harrington says the Ansaris have been closely involved in conversations with Logan officials about how the organization could expand its services to reach more underresourced families that need help for a disabled relative and about what those services might look like.
“They’ve traveled the country and the world, and they’ve seen other organizations that provide these kinds of services and share with us what they think those organizations do well,” Harrington says. “They’ve connected us with those organizations, and they’ve helped us share what we do well with other organizations.”
A Legacy Gift
The Ansaris’ high profile in South Bend coupled with Rafat’s deep involvement in the area’s medical community brought the couple to the attention of Notre Dame’s leadership and led to their biggest gift to date.
Rafat has treated a number of Notre Dame faculty and officials over the years and got to know the university through them and through their daughter Sarah, who earned her law degree from Notre Dame Law School. Rafat says the idea to create a center where faculty and students could study different religions’ influence on global issues had been on the minds of Notre Dame leaders for some time. Meanwhile, he and Zoreen had been mulling over for years what kind of a philanthropic legacy they wanted to leave behind.
They’ve never wanted to do it alone. They’re really humble. But when it’s time to speak, their voice is confident.
“We did lots of small donations here and there,” he says. “But we started to think about being selective and having something really good that can carry on and be a legacy for the betterment of humanity.”
One area the couple identified was religion. The idea held special resonance as the Ansaris, who are Muslim, watched the reaction to the September 11 attacks.
“We were all painted with the same brush, that all Muslims are like terrorists,” Rafat says. “We were thinking about what we could do to bring all the faiths together and get rid of some of the misunderstandings. We have a lot more commonalities than differences.”
Then, about six or seven years ago, a Notre Dame development official Rafat knew professionally asked if he and Zoreen would be interested in donating to the university at some point. Soon after, university officials approached the couple with the idea for the institute.
The Ansaris saw the university’s vision for the institute as the answer to what they had been looking for and began working with Notre Dame officials to hash out the gift’s structure. They are giving the gift as a combination of cash and securities, and have already given part of the donation to get the institute up and running. The university will receive the remainder upon their death.
Rafat says it’s been satisfying to watch the Ansari Institute develop its programs since it launched five years ago. During the fall semester, the institute offered students several courses on how Islam, Asian spirituality, and evangelical Christianity interact and influence global affairs, and it has created a Religion and Global Affairs concentration for undergraduates.
The institute also offers conferences and workshops for scholars and journalists, as well as seminars and reading groups that bring together students, faculty, and outside experts. It runs an internship program for undergraduate and graduate students in partnership with Religions for Peace, an international interfaith peace-building organization in New York, and presents public lectures and panels with guest experts from different religious traditions with divergent viewpoints.
Mahan Mirza, an Islamic studies scholar and expert on religious literacy who leads the institute, says the Ansaris’ gift and the creation of the institute gives him a sense of hope about the future. He says the long-term goal of the institute is to contribute to religious literacy in a way that is “wholesome” and respectful. Too often, he says, public discussion about world religions is overheated and creates discord, which allows bad actors to profit and sow division.
“We want to be able to be a place where we can intelligently talk about all these things,” Mirza says. “The real challenge is not to be able to live with each other simply because we agree, but to actually find ways to live with each other in peace despite our disagreements — and for that we need to have better conversations.”
The philanthropic legacy the Ansaris hoped to create with their Notre Dame gift is carrying over to the next generation. The couple include their two older children, Sarah and Adam, and their spouses in annual foundation meetings with the family’s investment and philanthropy advisers. Together, the family members decide what charities to support through the foundation, and there is a pot of money designated for Sarah and Adam so they can make grants to the charities and causes they and their spouses care about.
Sarah and Adam, both successful lawyers, give on their own and are involved in their parents’ philanthropy in different ways. Sarah is a supporter and activist for progressive causes, and Adam was closely involved in the planning and development of the Ansari Institute and currently serves on its advisory board. The Ansaris brought Sarah and Adam into their earliest discussions about both the Logan Center and Notre Dame gifts.
“These were big decisions, and they were equally involved in the decision making. We always consulted with them and asked their opinions about how they feel, you know, when we are giving away parts of their inheritance to Notre Dame,” Zoreen says. “They gave us good advice and were willing to make sacrifices. We are fortunate in that way, that they don’t feel entitled.”
The Ansaris taught their children from an early age about giving to charity whatever they could afford. The couple gave the children small amounts — $10 or less — to donate to charity or to fundraisers for their schools. They also made sure their children understood that being charitable wasn’t always about money.
“We told them if they don’t have money, they can give intellectually, spiritually, they can give their time; those are all assets they can give,” Zoreen says. “Whatever talents they have, they should share that. That’s all part of philanthropy.”