With various religious holidays this month, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate the roles faith-based organizations in the U.S. play in serving our communities. Some of the country’s largest and oldest nonprofit organizations have their roots in faith traditions, and the role faith-based organizations continue to play centuries later is remarkable. Answering the call of their faith, congregations across the country from all five of the major faith traditions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – engage daily in and with the nonprofit sector to solve issues like poverty and education. In this blog, we cover the ways most operate – as resource providers, service providers or advocates – and how this is evolving in many communities.
Model #1: Resource Provider
One of the most common roles faith-based organizations play is that of resource provider to the social sector. Nonprofits have benefited greatly from faith-based organizations that share financial, in-kind and volunteer contributions in support of causes affecting the community. For example, some churches, synagogues and mosques have invited nonprofit organizations to share space on their property to run food pantries or clothing closets. Other faith-based organizations have donated funds and encouraged congregants to volunteer as mentors or office assistants in schools and community-based organizations.
- Strengths: Faith-based organizations that serve as resource providers support the efforts of nonprofit organizations whose core business is to offer programs and services to people in need. This model can be the least time-intensive for both faith-based organizations and nonprofits.
- Limitations: The challenge for nonprofits is to help congregants feel connected to the people and issues they support. Being able to demonstrate the impact of funds or volunteer hours is critical to maintaining engagement and ongoing support.
Model #2: Service Provider
Seeing first-hand the distress some of their neighbors and congregants face, faith-based organizations sometimes shift into the role of direct service provider. Occasionally, what starts as a small program of the faith-based organization grows so much that it is spun off into an independent nonprofit organization. In Dallas, a good example of this is Project Transformation, started by the United Methodist Church, which has been scaled across the country. Alternatively, a faith community can identify a need in the community and serve as a catalyst for a nonprofit to get started. In Dallas, we have a number of organizations, such as Jubilee, Incarnation Place and The Wilkinson Center, which were born out of a faith community coming together to address a need by helping start a nonprofit. We also have been pleased to share in a post how the Jewish community has come together to spur innovative thinking as well as entrepreneurship to address community needs.
- Strengths: Faith-based organizations entering the domain of nonprofit organizations allows more people in the community to be served. The faith-based organization sometimes serves as a first responder, and this model also may give congregants a higher sense of fulfillment.
- Limitations: Faith-based organizations that operate programs and/or start programs can make the sector more competitive for nonprofit organizations seeking limited funding or clients. Though well intentioned, faith-based organizations – just like start-up nonprofits – must ensure that the organization has the capabilities required to provide services in the long-term and within the larger context of the social sector.
Model #3: Influencer/Advocate
American faith-based organizations have increasingly assumed the role of organizer, influencer or advocate to affect political and social change. They work alone or with a coalition of organizations to address the underlying causes of issues like poverty, education, homelessness and childhood trauma. In some communities, faith-based organizations have organized to influence policy changes on children’s issues, homelessness and hunger.
- Strengths: Faith-based organizations often have vast networks that can be leveraged to gain audience with decision-makers and resource providers who can advance the cause.
- Limitations: Collaboration between faith-based organizations, partners and community members on a common agenda can be difficult and time-consuming due to diverse values and motivators. In addition, many congregations are sensitive about bringing what are often seen as political agendas into their sacred spaces. But, when advocacy is accomplished, it has been shown to impact change.
In fact, we have also worked closely with new nonprofits in Texas started by leaders in the faith community who have become warriors for our toughest issues. We have been pleased to work with organizations, such as UNITE, which connects Christian leaders to one another to address urgent issues facing Dallas. They have recently built a permanent hands-on exhibit called the Cost of Poverty Experience, which is available to the entire community. We applaud them for making this investment – this simulated real-world experience allows all of us (no matter our faith) to empathize with our neighbor and understand that we are all one crisis away from poverty. Another organization that fills my soul with gratitude is Pastors for Texas Children. Through the leadership of Pastors Charles Johnson and Charles Luke, it has taken on public education as the “third pillar (alongside the church and home) for building responsible citizens” and pushed public school finance as a “moral duty.” I have no doubt this “new breed” of nonprofit will help us thread the needle on the important issues of poverty and public education.
As we celebrate our holiest of holidays focused on sacrifice and service, we are grateful for the contributions organizations of all faith traditions make to build stronger communities outside their walls. We hope you will share innovative models for service that you have seen in your neighborhoods or comment on the benefits and challenges you have encountered while working with congregations, so we can all get better together.