Asking Ourselves Essential Questions
by David P. King
As the leader of an institute focused on faith and giving, I am frequently asked to make the case for religion as part of charitable giving and the nonprofit sector. In response, it’s easy to default first to magnitude. We know from Giving USA, the annual report on philanthropy published by Giving USA Foundation, that giving to religion has consistently been the largest charitable subsector (29% of all giving last year). Research also tells us that religious affiliation and engagement are among the best predictors not only of giving to religion but of giving overall. And, as the Bridgespan report we recently profiled in Insights reminds us, faith-inspired nonprofits are often the most common and vital organizations providing substantial resources and social services in local communities. In short, whether we are studying the recipients of charitable giving, the motivations of individual givers, or the provision of actual services, we find that religion, faith and spirituality play a significant role.
The Positive Role of Faith
While it is also true that religion can be a cause for concern in fostering divisions and fomenting polarization, I believe that the scales are firmly tipped toward the positive role faith plays in our public sphere. Yet too often, as political strategist Michael Wear recently noted, many in public life treat religion as a “problem to solve rather than a potential partner.” That perspective is also active within formal philanthropy and the professionalized nonprofit and humanitarian sector. While not exactly ignored, religious groups and organizations are often kept at a safe distance, or instrumentalized for other purposes, rather than engaged with comfort and confidence on common ground.
The vital role of religious communities in our public life has been even more visible in recent days. For instance, within vaccine-hesitant communities, local religious leaders have been recognized as some of the most “trusted messengers” to persuade individuals to get vaccinated. According to a recent survey by Lake partners Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), faith-based organizations have been crucial to local communities’ public health efforts to address disparities in contracting, testing, and vaccinating for COVID-19. The same is true in response to issues of racial and economic injustice over the last year. Religious leaders have frequently been the most vocal and resolute grassroots advocates for systemic change in their communities. That’s true within and across communities, as interfaith networks have become vital in building mutual understanding and practical engagement on social issues.
Asking Ourselves the Essential Questions
For those of us focused on leading or supporting religious organizations, the headline usually stops there: religion is a vital if under-valued asset in our common life. But what if we turn the question on ourselves? How well do we engage with our partners in the philanthropic and non-profit sector?
Too often, faith-based organizations take refuge in the feeling that they are singular, unique. How can anyone else understand us because of our particular identity and mission? Yet, such an approach further deepens the very divides we need to bridge. Yes, too often philanthropy and nonprofits have undervalued the distinctives that religious congregations and organizations bring to our common life. But similarly, religious organizations have often avoided engaging with ready partners as well. What would it look like to meet philanthropy and fellow nonprofits halfway – or more?
There is so much that religious leaders can learn from the questions being asked – and courageous answers being offered – by philanthropic and nonprofit leaders in this challenging moment. How can we remain true to our distinctive mission and identity as organizations grounded in faith and at the same time become more active partners in learning and action with our colleagues in the social sector?
Willingness to Ask
The need for translation has always been the case; today that skill is even more essential. After meeting virtually for more than a year, many faith communities are discerning their future, asking how best to regroup for worship, use their buildings and other assets, and make a needed difference in their communities and larger world. What lies ahead? What are we called to be, to do, to give? How do we get there? Where do we start?
Of course, these are big questions, and I do not expect that any congregation or organization yet has ready answers. But I am more and more certain that our religious organizations must be willing to ask the big questions! To that end, Lake Institute is asking our constituents these very same questions: how have you experienced this past year, what essential questions are you asking now, and what do you need as you look to the future? As a subscriber to Insights, you should have received a link to a short survey asking for your feedback on these questions.
At Lake Institute, we seek to help religious and philanthropic leaders both understand and build upon the dynamic relationship between faith and giving for the sake of their organizations and the world. We hope you might help us, in turn, to by taking our survey and sharing the ‘essential questions’ that your own organization is exploring in these changing times.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events