Back in February I wrote an article on the value of voluntary work provided by churches for the benefit of their communities. The National Church Social Action Survey for 2012 by Jubilee+ referred to valued it at over £2.5 billion.
One of the things I like to do with this blog is to draw attention to the work being done by churches and Christian organisations in our society. There is so much good activity being done, often behind the scenes, that doesn’t get into the press that deserves to be highlighted. It’s not about saying that Christians are better people or being proud, but demonstrating that Christianity is a living faith where the grace and compassion that God shows each one of us if we choose to accept it causes us to want to share it with others. Christianity revolves around the giving of ourselves to God and to those around us. A servant attitude put into practice by wanting to bless the lives of others and comfort and support those in need is a natural outworking of a relationship with God.
Taking all of this into account, I was keen to read a report launched yesterday by Faith Forums for London entitled, ‘Better off without them?’ Faith Forums for London seeks to enable religious communities to work together for a better London and their new report records the results of a study measuring the level of voluntary sector welfare projects organised by churches and other faiths. Being a pilot project the study focused on the projects run locally in the borough of Wandsworth, but the results should ring true in many other parts of the country.
The report found that found that faith organisations were running 40% of all voluntary sector welfare projects in the borough (35% by Christians and 5% by other faiths). This is at least two or three times the number that might be expected based on regular church attendance and membership in the borough. An additional 7% of secular projects had been founded by a faith organisation.
The projects run by faith-based organisations were significantly smaller than the non faith-based with each project serving about one quarter of the people that non-faith-based projects did. This can partly be linked to the level of funding with faith-based projects receiving about a third of the income of non-faith organisations. This means that although faith-based groups reach less people, they effectively spend more per person that they work with. The figures are made more impressive when you consider that faith based projects’ incomes from state sources are less than half as much. Most of receive no state funding at all. However in the case of Christian projects, having the majority of income from private giving means hey are less likely to be affected by current government cuts. In 2011 when the survey was carried out, 11% of the non-faith projects were expecting to close due to government cutbacks. None of the faith based projects expected that to happen.
One interesting aspect of the report is the areas that faith and non-faith projects focus on.
Christian (and other faith) projects, as you might expect, were more heavily involved with children and young people along with the elderly. More complex and demanding user groups such as the disabled and ex-offenders were more likely to be served by non-faith organisations. This probably a reflection of the specialist skills and increased financial resources required to meet these groups’ needs. Faith groups are likely to stick to what they know that they can do well, although maybe these figures suggest that churches in particular should be looking to move beyond their comfort zones when they seek to serve their local communities in new ways.
Responding to the report, Philip Rosenberg, Director of the Faiths Forum for London, said:
“The content of this report challenges any contention that London’s communities are ‘better off without’ the contribution of local religious groups. Over 40% of welfare projects in Wandsworth are run by faith-based organisations, which may well be representative of the wider picture in London, where people of faith make up over 70% of the capital’s population.
“Of course, this 40% figure does not account for the wider role that religion plays in social action: individuals motivated by their faiths who are involved in ‘secular’ bodies; ‘secular’ organisations that were originally founded by religious communities; or the ‘secular’ charities that are housed in churches or other faith buildings.
“The report rightly challenges the public sector, which is often squeamish about funding faith-based organisations. Public bodies are often concerned that the faith sector provides exclusively only to people of a particular religion or denomination. This report contends with that in four ways:
“Firstly, many of the faith-based projects are accessible to the whole community. Secondly, even those that do provide exclusively to a group have beneficiaries from a section of society that ‘secular’ bodies find ‘hard to reach’, with specific cultural or religious needs. Thirdly, even those that cater only to their own may be saving the public purse through engaging with issues before they become a burden to the state. And finally, it is simply not true that ‘secular’ bodies are open to everyone. They might, for very good reasons, be focused on a specifically marginalised group, like people seeking asylum, or the Traveller community. Being focused is not always a bad thing!
“This report shows that faith providers are embedded in their local communities and responsive to local needs. They are funded primarily from their own grassroots support and draw heavily on volunteers, which makes them more sustainable and resilient to government funding cuts. However, with more government support, they may be able to increase their capacity for the benefit of all.”
The Better Off Without Them report is keen to emphasis that it is not trying to present its findings in a ‘them and us’ manner, avoiding pitching faith organisations against non-faith ones. It does not claim that faith-based projects are intrinsically better. It is determined though to make the point that faith-based projects should not be treated as second-rate in any way. It finds that at present, voluntary sector support agencies such as Councils regularly have only a limited awareness of faith bodies and faith-based projects. Too often the distinctiveness and diversity of the faith sector along with a belief that it is uses the work to proselytise appears to have been an excuse for isolating it. This is not an acceptable position.
At the very end the report draws the conclusion that agrees with my belief that there is a strong connection between religious faith and the motivation to support people in need. It finishes by making one last point:
‘It is a truism of policy that governments should not support faith as such but only its practical outcomes where these appear to support society’s values. But if it is religious faith which is behind these values and driving this good work, perhaps this approach also needs to be reviewed?
It’s an important question to ask and one that deserves to be taken seriously.