President Bush wants to promote religious charitable work with his faith-based initiative, but it may be easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than to convince some foundations to open their grantmaking to church-run organizations.
Despite their historic roots in the church’s charitable good works—and despite the devout religious backgrounds of many of their founders—most of the nation’s large foundations are more comfortable rendering their grant money unto just about anybody but God. So resistant to religion have the top charities become that in 1999, the leading 1,000 foundations targeted just 2.3 percent of their grant dollars to religion, according to the Foundation Center.
The list of foundations that flatly refuse to fund religion or programs that serve religious purposes reads like a who’s-who of philanthropy and includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. “Many foundations specifically state that they do not do religious giving. It’s very common,” says Stephen Lawrence, director of research for the Foundation Center.
With this in mind, the prospects of injecting support for old-time religion into the secular philanthropic zeitgeist seem slim. But supporters of the faith-based initiative are already predicting that the measure’s influence will extend beyond government and into the realm of private charity, where its impact could be nothing short of revolutionary.
Come the Revolution
“I think it’s going to transform giving,” says Joseph Loconte, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation. “What Bush is doing is challenging the secular status quo of giving.”
Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor at the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy and one of philanthropy’s wise men, says it’s impossible to know what the initiative’s impact will be when we still don’t have an initiative. Back in January, President Bush created the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives to assist religious groups in securing federal tax dollars. Such funding became available to the non-secular world when the “charitable choice” clause was added to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, permitting proven religious ministries to receive federal welfare grants without having to eliminate their religious identities.
But the Bush Administration is still in the process of crafting legislation that would expand federal funding opportunities for faith-based charitable work. The administration’s point men on the initiative, John DiIulio, the University of Pennsylvania political science professor who heads the office and former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, are now touring the country in an effort to drum up support for the plan. They have until July 27th to draw up recommendations for implementing the initiative.
Even without the details, however, Lenkowsky says there are plausible scenarios in which the initiative pulls mainstream philanthropy back into a partnership with religion. “I wonder if what we could be seeing is the remoralization of charity,” says Lenkowsky, who’s been serving as a DiIulio adviser.
“The optimum scenario is that more foundations are going to see the value of funding groups that right now they will not fund,” he says.
Certainly there are exceptions to the secular foundation rule, notably the Lilly Endowment and the Pew Charitable Trusts, both top ten foundations that have consistently funded religious-based works. Smaller charities are also much more likely to fund church-run social programs: In 1999, the 100 largest foundations gave just $97.9 million, or 1.5 percent of their grantmaking, to religious groups, while the next 900 foundations gave $165.4 million, or 3.4 percent, according to the Foundation Center.
Although many large foundations were founded by devoutly religious men such as John D. Rockefeller, they were caught up in the trend toward secularization that swept modern society in the latter half of the 20th century. Although churches were for centuries among the few institutions dedicated to helping the poor and downtrodden, they began to find themselves overshadowed by the federal government during the New Deal in the 1930s and then, 30 years later, by the Great Society.
Over the next decade, academics and social scientists all but supplanted priests, pastors, and rabbis as the recognized experts on how to eradicate poverty and serve the needy. Rather than sticking to their religious origins, many foundations followed the government’s lead, placing their faith in programs and philosophies that were more concerned with solving problems than saving souls.
“The biggest shift is the challenge to the philanthropic community, which has bought into the government’s stance of keeping the separation of church and state,” says Wayne Meisel, president of the Bonner Foundation, a faith-based foundation in Princeton, New Jersey. “The irony is that many of these people were very involved in faith themselves. I mean, the Rockefellers founded the Riverside Baptist Church.”
“But then the academics took over the foundations, and they didn’t want to give money to religion,” he says.
Like the universities and other vanguards of the elite, says Loconte, the foundations have become mired in what Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter calls the “culture of disbelief.” Foundation executives have become so cynical about faith and so removed from the realm of religious life that they fail to accept religious social services as serious charities.
“It does seem that many of these religious organizations and the values they represent are inimical to grantmakers at these foundations. It’s a cultural divide,” says Loconte. “Views on abstinence, traditional marriage, and other issues held by many religious organizations are not held by the people at foundations, who tend to be socially liberal.”
That doesn’t mean that philanthropists are actually hostile to religion, as some critics assume. “My religious friends get it wrong when they assume there’s an animus against religion,” says Loconte. “It’s a spiritual tone deafness. They don’t move in these circles, so they’re tone deaf to the life-changing work these religious groups are doing. Religion is still one of the most poorly understood realms for elites in general.”
In other words, those in charge of handling multi-million-dollar endowments weren’t about to fork over grant money to Bible-thumping bumpkins with funny accents, suspect educational credentials, and vocabularies that included words like “salvation.” But then a funny thing happened. Despite their lack of sophistication, Ivy League degrees, and money, the Bible-thumpers began turning out social programs that worked.
As foundations began demanding results and accountability from their grantees, stories of the success of church-based charities started proliferating. Effectiveness is a difficult thing to measure, but the anecdotes are compelling: church soup kitchens that feed thousands on a shoestring; high-scoring religious schools in the heart of the inner city; church-run homeless shelters that pull more men off the streets than comparable city facilities.
Those who support such efforts say the explanation is no mystery. “People in these situations are as hungry for spiritual sustenance as they are for food,” says Meisel. “Many folks want to be prayed for and with. For 90 percent of the folks, it’ll be, ‘I appreciate this faith-based community.’”
Such anecdotes have yet to win over the skeptics at most foundations, but they have caught their attention. “You always hear in the foundation world, ‘Are these groups really as effective as they’ve been billed?’” says Lenkowsky. “What about proselytizing? What about discrimination? In some ways, the foundations are going to approach this in the same way that the government does.”
To the extent that the faith-based initiative can showcase the work of such successful church programs, say the measure’s supporters, the foundations will find themselves under pressure to fund their work. Already, recent polls show that most Americans want to see more money funneled to faith-based groups, saying, for example, that they do a better job of working with groups such as teenagers than do secular organizations.
“How are the foundations going to stand in the way of this tide?” says Loconte. “It’s a tide and it’s becoming a tidal wave. I don’t know how people at foundations are going to sleep at night if they don’t say, ‘We’ve got to give faith-based groups a chance.’”
Ho-hum, says the Rockefeller Foundation, where spokesman George Soule reports that they’re sleeping rather well, thank you. He acknowledges that the foundation “doesn’t do an extraordinary amount of funding of faith-based organizations.” What about the faith-based initiative? “We haven’t really focused on it,” he says.
Catching the Wave
Not all foundations are as blasé. Indeed, if the faith-based initiative takes off within private philanthropy, it may be because the Bush administration isn’t trying to turn the tide, but rather catch a wave that’s just started to gather speed. A handful of secular charities have already begun to invest in proven faith-based programs, notably the Ford Foundation, which has given $1.2 million in grants to inner-city church groups in six cities working to curb youth violence and boost literacy.
Such grants represent an acknowledgement of the church’s work in areas where few charitable organizations dare to tread. “People who want to do work in the inner city—well, who’s left in the inner city but the black church?” says Meisel.
In March, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation made a dramatic commitment to religious philanthropy by sinking $100 million into its Faith in Action program. The grant triples the size of the 19-year-old Johnson program, which brings together volunteers from a variety of religious faiths to help care for the chronically ill, frail, elderly, and disabled.
Like the federal government, the foundation wanted to avoid mixing salvation with its caregiving, a problem it solved by insisting on an ecumenical focus.
“We’ve had lots of requests from single-faith groups to do this. But we’d like our coalitions to reflect the community and for people to see that it’s open to everyone,” says foundation vice president Paul Jellinek. “At a practical level, it’s a way to protect against proselytizing. It’s hard to keep an eye on them from a distance, but this way they keep an eye on each other.”
Jellinek says the R. W. Johnson Foundation has no position on the faith-based initiative, although he is pleased to see church-based programs in the spotlight. “Wherever you are on the debate, one positive is that it’s highlighted the work of faith communities,” he says.
“I hope our initiative will help prompt some of that,” he added. “It’s an opportunity for other foundations to see what philanthropic dollars can do. We’ve certainly had expressions of interest in this from other foundations.”
But it won’t happen overnight. “It’s too early to tell. It’s taken 35 years for the Great Society and the welfare state to de-moralize the social services sector,” says Loconte. “For that sector to be revived and re-moralized is going to take some time. It’s going to be another generation.”
At the same time, the shift back to morality-based giving may be an idea whose time has come. “I’ve got to think this is bubbling in the air. You’re seeing people from Bush on down making religious organizations a priority,” says Loconte. “I think there’ll be a trickle-down effect with foundations. After a while, it’s hard to deny what works and then it’s going to become increasingly difficult to defend the status quo.”
Valerie Richardson is a contributing editor of Philanthropy.