More Questions Than Answers
Four things we think we know about faith-based organizations but don't--yet.
BY: Holly J. Lebowitz
When George Bush announced his White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in early February, there was an immediate explosion of commentary. Proponents were thrilled that Bush seemed to recognize their point of view: Religion-based groups deserve to be government-sanctioned social service providers. Opponents warned that the separation of church and state would soon be history.
Now a new discussion is emerging: What do we actually know about faith-based organizations? And what do we need to find out?
"We must be outcome-based, insisting on success and steering resources to the effective and to the inspired," Bush wrote in the foreword to his mission statement, "Rallying the Armies of Compassion." Much has been said about religious groups' ability to achieve better results than secular nonprofit organizations. But is it true? At this stage, evidence is anecdotal, based largely on personal testimonies and case studies, rather than on data-driven research.
One reason to doubt it is that many faith-based groups are stretched beyond their capacity to serve because of limited financial resources--often, churches in underserved areas simply have more need than they have funds. Also, many church budgets do not place social services at the top of the priority list, so programs often take a backseat to other church activities, such as worship or evangelism. Moreover, many faith-based groups are unaware of funding opportunities already available to them through charitable choice, the provision of the 1996 welfare legislation that extended some financial support to religious social service organizations. The National Congregations Study, a 1998 report by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves, found that 57% of congregations operate social service projects--but only 24% are aware of the charitable choice legislation.
Future study must assess whether faith-based groups can actually meet the needs they will be asked to deal with. The White House Office will also have to figure out how to get the word out to these groups about the money the government is offering.