Faith-Based Nonprofits and Congregations

Faith-Based Nonprofits and Congregations

The topic that has generated more research in recent years about religion than almost any other concerns the role of so-called faith-based nonprofit organizations. Besides the more than three hundred thousand local congregations that presently exist in the United States, thousands of faith-based nonprofit organizations have been founded in recent years (Scott 2002). These are specialized organizations that exist to fulfill such functions as operating homeless shelters and food banks, as opposed to the broad range of liturgical, ritual, and educational functions performed by most congregations. Faith-based service organizations are typically incorporated as 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Examples range from local organizations founded and sponsored by a coalition of congregations, such as a soup kitchen or a day care center, to such national organizations as Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. Faith-based nonprofits are particularly significant in the present context because they, to a greater extent than congregations, function in cooperative and competitive relationships with other nonprofit organizations. They have many managerial problems and conform to the same legal requirements. They are also more likely than congregations to receive government funding (Monsma 1996; Chaves 1999; Glenn 2000; Wuthnow 2004).

Many faith-based nonprofits are multipurpose organizations that include a range of activities or programs such as food banks, neighborhood centers, job training programs, and transportation programs and therefore are concerned with coordinating and supervising these various activities. Church service agencies, which are semiautonomous service arms of a single denomination or confessional tradition, are one kind of multipurpose faith-based service providers. Even at the local level, the budgets of these organizations often exceed those of large congregations and may include substantial receipts from government agencies. Ecumenical or interfaith coalitions are another kind of multipurpose faith-based organization. These range from coalitions involving a few congregations in a single neighborhood to coalitions involving hundreds of congregations throughout a region or metropolitan area. Smaller coalitions often develop when single congregations cannot effectively deliver services; larger coalitions often receive government funding and work closely with nonsectarian, nonprofit agencies.

Othe faith-based nonprofits have emerged as direct-service ministries, which focus less on coordination or supervision than on immediate relationships with clients, often centered around a particular activity, such as homeless shelter or a soup kitchen. Usually, these are local organizations operating in specific neighborhoods, such as Fith Street Shelter in New York City or the Waco Cares Ministry in Waco, Texas. Within the larger category of direct-service ministries, church-sponsored ministries retain formal or informal connections with a religious organization and usually receive financial support from this organization and in turn include influences from that organization in the form of board memberships, overlapping staff, or bylaw restrictions. A Presbyterian church that runs a local nursing home is an example. In contrast, church-initiated organizations are more likely to have been started by a religious organization or by a pastor or lay member with strong ties to a religious organization by then become sufficiently autonomous that their mission and governance reflect religious values only informally. An AIDS counseling program that was started with help from a local church but that now operates independently of that church is an example.

Faith-based nonprofits form a significant complement to the informal service activities and social ministries that take place within congregations. The activities in which faith­based nonprofits engage generally require professional training, unlike the volunteer activities performed in congre­gations. Whereas congregations are concentrated in subur­ban areas, faith-based nonprofits appear more likely to be lo­cated in inner-city neighborhoods or in areas closer to clients (Wuthnow 200b). In these areas, faith-based and secular nonprofits typically evolve a division of labor that minimizes duplication of effort and develop relationships with at least several congregations in the wider community that supply volunteers and funding or donations in kind (Cnaan 2202).

In one study conducted in northeastern Pennsylvania, faith-based service agencies and churches referred clients back and forth, shared information about them, and worked together to channel resources from larger programs to specific points of delivery in local neighborhoods. But service agencies characteristically handled clients that the churches were unable or unwilling to deal with and not the converse; that is, agencies appeared to be helping churches meet needs more than churches were helping agencies. This was one of the reasons that faith-based agencies had been established in the first place. Clergy members recognized that some people’s needs required long-term or specialized attention, or they knew that too many needs were concentrated in some churches while other churches had resources to spare. Agency heads were generally pleased that churches were able to send them clients. Yet these administrators also complained that churches were sometimes doing too little to care for their own. The congregations that were most likely to have formal, mutually supportive relationships with faith-based agencies had larger memberships and budgets, were located closer to low-income neighborhoods and were affiliated with mainline Protestant denominations (Wuthnow 2000b, 2004).

Because they often receive government funding, faith-based nonprofits typically develop strategies for managing possible conflicts of interest between their religiously oriented activities and other programs. These strategies include keeping separated budgets for different programs, housing programs in different facilities, and referring clients with religious interests to congregations. It is difficult to know, however, whether funds received to support specific services also contribute indirectly in some way to the larger religious purposes of the organizations. The effectiveness of these faith-based organizations is still being assessed (Johnson, Tompkins, and Webb 2002).

Source: The Nonprofit Sector: A Research Handbook, Second Edition-Religion in the Nonprofit Sector.

Wendy Cadge and Robert Wuthnow


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