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Study analyzes role of religious congregations in disaster relief

originally posted on September 21, 2022 on the Indiana University O’Neill School blog

Religious congregations will play a critical role in relief efforts as the frequency and severity of natural disasters increase due to climate change, but the location of those congregations—and the ages of the people involved—will impact the kind of help they provide.

A new study from researchers at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy analyzed data in the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices, which was funded by the Lilly Endowment, Inc. The report, “Giving and Going: US Congregational Participation in Disaster Response”, published in Nonprofit Management & Leadership, included Professor Beth Gazley, Associate Professor Brad Fulton, and Ph.D. candidate Wes Zebrowski, as well as IUPUI Associate Professor David King. It is the first national study of congregational disaster giving and volunteering in the US.

The study found that congregations make a significant impact in providing charitable giving and volunteering in response to disasters with more than 70% of congregations giving to disaster relief and over half volunteering for disaster-related projects.

However, congregations had different responses depending on their geographic location.

“Proximity matters,” Fulton said. “Congregations that are located closer to disaster-prone areas are more likely to participate in disaster relief efforts both in terms of giving money and going to volunteer. Congregations with older members are more likely to give money to support disaster relief efforts, while congregations with younger members are more likely to go and volunteer for disaster relief efforts.”

The NSCEP also suggested that helping with relief efforts became a habit.

“We found that congregations that volunteer for disaster relief efforts are more likely to give to disaster relief efforts,” Fulton said. “Congregations can be an under-utilized resource when it comes to coordinating disaster relief efforts. In addition to money, congregation can gather donated supplies, provide volunteers, offer shelter, provide meeting space, etc.”

The study also found that Black Protestant congregations are exceedingly more likely to volunteer for local disasters than are other faith traditions.

“Past research found Black congregations were under-recognized for their role in Hurricane Katrina response,” Gazley said. “Our analysis supports that conclusion with much greater generalizability.”

Most research on charitable giving, particularly faith-based giving, has focused on individuals rather than institutions (e.g. congregations). The NSCEP, which was published in 2019, provides an overview of how congregations receive, manage, and spend financial resources. The team at O’Neill used the NSCEP to delve deeper into the role congregations play in disaster relief efforts.

The researchers also believe that religious congregations that are involved in disaster relief efforts could be helpful in battling climate change because they have seen the negative impact in more tangible ways.

“Congregations involved in disaster relief efforts might be more inclined to participate in climate change mitigation efforts,” Fulton said. “Identifying the ways congregations are involved in climate change mitigation efforts and identifying which types of congregations are involved in these efforts will be the next steps in our research.”