On a wing and a prayer: faith based charities

27 Apr 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 27 Apr 2017

Faith-based charities receive a combined annual total of £16.3 billion in funds across the UK, one third of all monies raised by the Third Sector. 

Yet there is little understanding and even less appreciation of their work.  As secularism grows they are treated with suspicion, even hostility by some funders and some other Third Sector organisations.

NICVA has just published a survey on faith-based charities in Northern Ireland. It estimates that they collectively employ 8.,582 staff, backed by 84,327 volunteers, a formidable presence.

This survey comes in the wake of research from the London-based Think Tank New Philanthropy Capital.

Its Report What a difference a faith makes gives strong insights into this massively important but strangely neglected sector. It should be read in conjunction with the NICVA survey which is here.

The NPC report sets out to examine what faith based charities do and how faith influences that both for better and for worse.

It concludes that the rest of the sector would “do well to engage far more with faith based charities, acknowledge their successes, work more closely with them and study the evidence on their effectiveness.”

In terms of scale: on a UK wide basis the authors state that one quarter of the Third Sector is faith-based and accounts for more than half of those involved in international aid and human rights work.

NICVA’s Northern Ireland survey shows a predominance of community-based activity, this is presumably typical of the UK as a whole when London, where the big overseas and human rights charities are based, is stripped out.

So what is a faith-based charity? They tend to fit into different categories best collectively defined as organisations that have some form of religious belief embedded in their vision, mission, history or the activities they carry out.

Three examples will help to draw this out:

Trocaire is an example of a charity where religious teachings are central to the work carried out. It was established by the Irish bishops who wrote about the first collection held in Catholic churches: “Our response to this collection will be one very positive way of showing ourselves, to our political representatives, and to the nations of the world, that we are at one with Our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ in his compassion for the needy and in his will to help them.” Trocaire’s work is explicitly guided by Catholic social teaching.

The Quakers who have long been active in Ireland, north and south, believe in putting their faith into action. Their charitable work is an expression of their faith but their programmes are open to all and do not have religious elements. For them the religious element is therefore implicit.

Barnardos is an example of a charity which was founded as a faith-based charity. It has moved away from that because it wanted to help as many people as possible and felt that coming from a religious background may not help. It now defines itself as a children’s charity, but is proud of its past and its values are grounded on Christian principles. Here is its value statement.

Faith-based charities have a number of really important strengths that they leverage very effectively. Their staff tend to be extremely well motivated and display perseverance in the face of difficult challenges; perseverance is not a quality unique to people of faith, but a religious belief does add a different dimension to this admirable quality.

They also have tended to prove more resilient than most in the face of cuts and austerity and, as the Northern Ireland survey shows, they can recruit many highly-motivated volunteers.

They have a much greater propensity for collaboration than is often the norm in the sector. This is because they have shared values and goals. This will often extend to fund-raising, service delivery and sharing best practice. It is interesting to note that they appear to get stronger through working together and avoiding the competitive tendency that has crept into the rest of the sector.

It also means that interventions can be very rapidly replicated: church-based food banks are a strong example of this.

The NPC report notes:” In faith-based charities, many values—such as compassion, love for others and justice in society—are underpinned by faith. Faith culture and tradition, along with religious beliefs and teachings, can provide important motivation for those of faith to engage in charitable work, even if they do not participate in structured religious practices

“These stories exist across many faiths and often link the idea that, by showing kindness and love to others, you are demonstrating your love to God or Gods. It is this link that means religious organisations have a strong history of charitable engagement.”

It also explains why so many are involved in human rights projects, international aid, and why they are motivated to co-operate.

There is also a long tradition of working with “hard to reach” communities, sometimes previously referred to by faith-based charities as “hard to love”. Their presence through churches and other places of worship mean that they have a base in the heart of communities and existing buildings that help in this work.  This has proved especially value in areas of England with significant Muslim populations, relevant faith-based charities have high levels of trust and can be extremely effective.

These of course are great strengths. However concerns do remain and appear to be hardening. At the forefront of these is proselytism—attempts by those of faith to convert people to their belief—and particularly in the context of working with vulnerable people who may be easily influenced.

These fears are in part based on the fact that the advancement of religion is a valid charitable objective; and the long history of proselytising and conversion in Christianity. Church organisations also have an appalling history of abuse of children and young mothers which is still being worked through today.

It is argued from a secular perspective that religion has no place in public services, such as schools and services and that religious charities will use public money to spread their own beliefs.

In the Republic there is currently a fierce debate taking place because the Sisters of Charity, which previously ran some of the notorious Magdalen Laundries owns the land on which the new National Maternity Hospital is to be built, even though it will be independently run.

The NPC reports that much of the fears about proselytising are ill-founded - there is little evidence for it. Indeed many faith-based charities in England are reacting to the rise of secularism by down=playing the role of faith in their organisations and as explained above many activities, although religiously motivated have no religious element in service delivery. 

This is also a challenge for wider society for, as secularism grows, so too does misunderstanding of religion, the religious and their motivations. Low religious literacy can produce a new form of intolerance, one born from ignorance, not insight.

The success of faith-based charities, their unique strengths are long overdue more rigorous scrutiny. As are the challenges they face, and how their work can be fully integrated into an increasingly secular world in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding.


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