Why you should care
Even though compassion comes in all forms, some are more effective than others.
In the post-Dubya era, we haven’t heard much about one of his old project faves — faith-based charity. Naturally, it’s not exactly territory Obama might want to tread in right now. Say “religion” and “charity” and you might start thinking Hobby Lobby-staffed health clinics. For women.
It’s time to reconsider. After all, philanthropy has already been gripped by innovation fever, from the advent of benefit corporations and impact investing to the billionaire pledge. So many Silicon Valley moguls-in-training plan to “change the world,” it’s become a bad cliché. And yet, amid all the talk, one thing remains pretty constant: The middle classes continue to give relatively more money to charity than do the uber-rich, and many of them give at churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. We’d be remiss to ignore the mechanics of everyday people’s giving. And as far as that goes, there may be no vehicle more useful than religious ones.
Why are religious institutions well-suited for giving? For one, religious organizations already have an infrastructure to tap into, both on the operations side and the worldview side. Those in religious congregations already gather regularly, generally share a moral philosophy and therefore are more easily mobilized. That “strong membership base” makes them appealing do-gooders for tackling things like homelessness and malnutrition, which require many bodies and hands, says Kirsten Gronbjerg, the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy at the University of Indiana.
But there’s more than effectiveness at play. Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, has done some impact-analyses studies and suggests that religiously motivated organizations have a better chance at digging deeper into the root causes of problems. “Charity is about relationships,” he says, “and about love.” And an overburdened government worker trying to make the rounds down a roll-call sheet of recipients can’t ask quite as many questions, like “What brought you to this place, why are you homeless, why is it you don’t have a job?” he says.
All of this is well and good, but when it comes to implementing government policies around faith-based charity, well, hardly anyone is happy. Liberals fear that religious institutions might foist their ideologies on vulnerable people — a fair worry, though many who do good works through church lack any missionary aim. Then there would be the fuss over which faiths should be included: No matter its protestations of secularism, the Ismaili Muslim Aga Khan Foundation, for instance, might not make it onto a sponsorship bill without some raised eyebrows. Oh, and those libertarians: They sure do love the private sector, but Tanner and others hold up a big red X if the government comes near at all. He gripes, in fact, that the Bush administration helped balloon the welfare state by funding private faith-based charities, thereby “polluting” them.
Lastly, though, you’ve gotta ask: How easy is it to measure good? Gronbjerg says some of the limitations on her comparative charity research have been around assessing effectiveness. Tanner agrees — you can’t really have a control study, so no great social science lab abounds. We should be better at doing good, sure. And maybe better, too, at measuring good.