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Elevating the Role of Faith-Inspired Impact in the Social Sector

Resource from Insights Newsletter
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Elevating the Role of Faith-Inspired Impact in the Social Sector

Insights Article

Written By: Jeri Eckhart Queenan, Devin Murphy, and Peter Grunert 

When Catholic Charities DC (CCDC) fell on hard times, its board recruited an experienced leadership team to help keep its doors open to the community’s most vulnerable. “It was a tough time. Needs were rising. Resources were falling. There was a lot of dysfunction. The budget relied on public funds,” explains Monsignor John Enzler, hired as CCDC’s CEO in 2011.

Fortunately, philanthropic benefactors were willing to make two gifts totaling $6 million that gave Enzler’s team flexibility to map out a plan to cut unsustainable programs and reinvest in programs that were core to CCDC’s mission. The result: CCDC is financially strong and able to provide food, shelter, and educational services to over 140,000 individuals in the metropolitan DC area.

Philanthropy’s timely intervention buttressed a faith-inspired organization that provides critical services in one metro. Seeking to understand the broader role of these organizations in driving social change nationally, we set out to analyze novel data and interview field experts.

Our resulting article documents how faith-inspired nonprofits account for two out of every five dollars spent on safety net services across a sample of six representative US cities.

While their role in the social safety net is recognized by some funders, including government agencies, that perspective has not translated into funding from the largest institutional philanthropies. Among the 15 largest private foundations, faith-inspired human services nonprofits represent only 12 percent of safety net funding, much less than their 40 percent share of the sector.

Large institutional philanthropy’s discomfort with faith-inspired nonprofits is often grounded in the complicated historical relationship between faith traditions and many aspects of social justice. Though many faith traditions share a common concern with fighting poverty, some have also been a source of harm, trauma, and hardship. This complex history makes it hard for funders to discern which faith communities’ organizations are aligned with their equity values and impact objectives. 

Our research has identified three myths that leave impact on the table:

  • Myth #1—Secularism is the dominant frame for America.

Reality: Despite recent declines in religious affiliation, nearly three out of every four Americans remain religiously affiliated – with Black, Latinx, rural and low-income communities actively engaging in their faith at higher rates

  • Myth #2—Faith-inspired organizations are a small portion of the social sector.

Reality: Roughly a third of the 50 largest nonprofits in the country have a faith orientation. And, 40 percent of international nongovernmental organizations are faith-inspired.

  • Myth #3—Faith-inspired organizations are stodgy and lack innovation.

Reality: Many faith-inspired organizations are at the forefront of innovation in service delivery and the ability to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Tactical Steps to Close the Gap

As we collectively look out on the crises of a global pandemic, our country’s racial reckoning, and increasing threats to democratic norms, it is imperative that we look for ways to deeply engage with the systems and institutions that motivate, convene, and establish a sense of community across the lives of millions in this country and billions worldwide. We suggest one way might be to build bridges across secular-anchored funding and faith-inspired impact. Here are a few thoughts on how to get started:

  • View faith-inspired organizations as brokers of trust within communities. “As a means for intersecting with communities that are rooted in race and ethnicity, faith-inspired organizations that are governed, run, and accountable to the people they serve can be excellent partners for funders who wish to build authentic connections and partnerships with underrepresented communities,” says David Dodson, recently retired president of MDC, a catalyst for social change in the South.
  • Extend trust through meaningful dialogue. Successfully engaging with these organizations hinges on trusting the roles they play in their communities, and embarking on a frank, mutual dialogue with faith-based actors about the funder’s motivations. Some leaders we spoke with cautioned anyone hoping to partner with congregational communities to center the communities, not themselves.
  • Complement faith-inspired organizations by collaborating on solutions. “Churches are really key anchors in underserved communities,” says Kathryn Pitkin Derose, senior researcher at RAND Corporation, a policy think tank. “They excel at responding to critical needs, and they know those needs in their communities very intimately. When you start to combine efforts with churches, you can really have an important impact on the community as a whole.”

Jeri Eckhart Queenan and Devin Murphy are partners in The Bridgespan Group’s New York office, where Peter Grunert is a manager.


Expanded Perspective

Written By: David P. King, P.hD.

In their most recent research report, our colleagues at the Bridgespan Group remind us of the essential role that faith-inspired institutions play in our communities, even if sometimes overlooked or misunderstood by the worlds of philanthropy and social impact. At Lake Institute, we could not agree more, as our mission focuses directly on fostering a deeper understanding of the dynamic relationship between faith and giving. 

This mission often leads us to help faith-inspired institutions better develop their fundraising and stewardship capacities when asking for support. Yet, our mission also focuses directly on the givers. At one level, we help faith-inspired donors reflect upon why and how they give. On another level, we help philanthropists and foundations understand the significant role that religion and spirituality have and continue to play at the heart of the social sector. Only when exploring the dynamic ways that faith and philanthropy impact one another can we fully understand the essential roles they play in shaping our communities.  

Faith-inspired institutions like congregations and local social service agencies have been embedded as anchors in their communities for decades. Take for example the Black Church. In bringing its history alive most recently through the PBS documentary, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. demonstrated how this trusted institution often served to organize communities, share resources, and respond to resistance with resilience. Far from being stodgy, the Black Church was a multi-faceted model of innovation as leaders also earned the trust from local communities for being present, understanding their specific needs, and meeting the many challenges they faced. While no sector is monolithic, many religious institutions do model resiliency and a rootedness essential to impacting their communities. 

At the same time, among faith-inspired institutions, there is often a lack of understanding of how the philanthropic sector works. While roughly a third of the 50 largest nonprofits in the country have a faith orientation and are well equipped with fundraisers, grant writers, and program managers, there are thousands of smaller faith-based organizations that make up the swath of social service providers. And they are often overlooked because they do not have the capacities to meet the thresholds of major grant initiatives, or they do not speak the vernacular of professionalized philanthropy. Ironically, for these reasons, the philanthropic sector often misses the voices that they most need to hear: those in the communities doing the work with the trust and understanding of the local context.   

This is why efforts at bridge-building are so important in this moment. Not only are these efforts essential across religious traditions and between religious and secular organizations, but they are essential across sectors as well. How can faith and philanthropy, in dialogue, help us build a world that knows both love and justice, accountability and reconciliation? What can insights from religious actors teach philanthropy in reflecting on its own values in stewarding resources for the common good? What can philanthropy teach faith communities about new ways to partner?

As we continue to explore this dynamic relationship, Lake Institute is committed to these questions. We focused on them in our Distinguished Visitors Dialogue and we will look to many other conversations in the days ahead as these questions continue to resonate.  

DATE: March 23, 2021
TOPIC: Research and Scholarship
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Faith-Inspired Organizations
AUTHOR: David P. King, The Bridgespan Group