Imams definitely have a role to play in helping the poor and needy of their communities. If you're an Imam there are a number of things you can do on an educational and practical level to help. Here are some ideas:
1. Establish projects which help the poor and the needy become self-sufficient
What better way to feed a person than to teach him or her how to fish? In other words, help people become able to support themselves without relying on donations, food stamps or welfare.
One way you can do this is to encourage financially well off brothers and sisters who own businesses, for instance, to hire the poor and needy, even if it's only for a small task and for minimal pay. Even if they don't make enough to completely support themselves, working for even a little will give a person back their self-esteem and in many cases, encourage them to find ways on their own to support themselves.
2. Establish a Zakat committee
How can Muslims pay their Zakat in their local communities to benefit the poor and needy if there is no structure to distribute their contribution to those who need it?
Establish a Zakat committee at your Masjid which will take care of collecting and distributing Zakat. This committee will keep a private list of the poor and needy who are eligible for Zakat in your community.
Don't forget to be careful in distributing the Zakat. Make sure you are not giving only to those people you know personally who are in need, or even worse, only those people who are part of your ethnic group. Remember that there are those who are the poor and needy from all backgrounds and they have a right to Zakat money too. There are also those who don't make their neediness and poverty obvious, so they need to be discreetly sought out and given Zakat money.
A note of caution: make sure the committee follows proper guidelines when approaching and distributing to those who are in need of Zakat funds.
3. Make a Zakat section of your Masjid library or bookstore
If you have bookstore or library, make sure it is stocked with books on Zakat, Sadaqa (charity) and various economic aspects of Islam.
You can even make a specific section of the library and/or bookstore devoted to the issue of Zakat and economics.
Ensure that the books are in languages most of the attendees to your Masjid understand. So you should have Arabic and Urdu literature, for instance, but also English books available on Islamic economic and money aspects.
4. Educate Muslims about the necessity of Zakat
How many Muslims believe in the Shahadah, pray, fast in Ramadan, have made or plan to make Hajj but are clueless when it comes to Zakat?
Plenty. Muslims need to have the importance of Zakat emphasized to them. They also need to have this pillar of Islam explained in a simple and straightforward way so that they can understand how to do it.
5. Organize Zakat week
Dedicate at least one week out of the year "Zakat week" at your Masjid or Islamic center. Ideally, it should be outside of the month of Ramadan so people can really focus on the issue of Zakat.
This event can include a Zakat clinic, pamphlets could be distributed, books can be sold, the whole Masjid could be decorated with verses of the Quran and Ahadith on Zakat and statistics on poverty could be on display. The overall aim: to educate and remind everyone about the duty of Zakat.
6. Give Khutbahs (sermons) on Zakat and Sadaqa (charity)
Who knows the rewards of paying Zakat and Sadaqa? There are probably many people in your community who don't. You must educate them about the benefits and advantages of helping the poor and needy through these two Islamic mechanisms. The Friday Khutbah is an ideal forum to present this information. Focus on the general commandments and benefits, not necessarily the detailed, technical explanations.
7. Keep an eye out for the poor and the needy
Is there a brother who regularly comes and asks for money to support his family? Is there a sister who asks for money for her medication?
Keep an eye out for those who are in need in your community. They don't have to necessarily say they are in need. Their physical condition might give away the sad truth, even if they are too noble to speak about it. Make a private list of those who you think are in need and then make a point to visit them and see their condition at home to investigate what their situation is and how you and the community can help.
8. Meet regularly with new Muslims
New Muslims are in need of a lot of support and encouragement, especially when they first embrace Islam. Most of the time, they do not have the support system of a tight-knit family to help them out when they are in need or difficulty.
By meeting with new Muslims individually and privately on a regular basis to see how they are doing, you as an Imam can work to ensure their financial and educational, as well as other needs, are met by the Muslim community.
9. Devote at least one Friday to collecting for those in need
Designate one specific Friday at the mosque to collecting for the poor and needy of the community after Juma (Friday) prayers. Pass around a collection box, make sure the money is properly counted, then distributed. Also, keep a written record of how much was given to the anonymous needy families of the community.
10. Make a point to visit soup kitchens and homeless shelters
Go with a contingent of Muslims a few days every month to meet and talk with the poor and homeless of your area at a soup kitchen and/or homeless shelter. Even better, set up a day where you and your group cook food for the shelter's visitors. This is a good Dawa exercise too, so bring some pamphlets or written material about the poor and needy in Islam. Announce the need for volunteers during Friday Khutbas (sermons) in the weeks before the event.
11. Arrange a Sunday school field trip to a soup kitchen or shelter
Take the kids from your Masjid or local Islamic center to visit and help out in a soup kitchen or shelter. This is a great activity to include as part of Zakat week.
This experience can be an eye-opener for them. It can show them the reality of poverty right in the wealthy country they live in. It can also sensitize them to the need to give generously, for the sake of Allah, to the poor and needy.
12. Make Dua (supplication)
When you make Dua after Juma (Friday) prayers or on other occasions, ask Allah to help those who are in need or living in poverty. Ask Him to help you and the community provide for their needs. Also pray that those who regularly give Zakat for the sake of Allah receive Barakah (blessings) in their wealth. This can encourage others to give their Zakat as well.