How Faith-Based Philanthropy Improves Lives

As faith communities across the world celebrate renewal and hope in April with the observances of Easter, Passover and Ramadan, we celebrate their significant contributions to the fabric of American society in improving communities. From the Jewish call to repair the world through “tikkun olam” to the words of Jesus to “love God and neighbor,” faith inspires the values of selfless and sacrificial generosity – values that improve lives.

Roughly half of Americans belong to a formal house of worship and Gallup polling shows about three in four Americans identify with a specific religious faith. While those numbers have declined in the last few decades, it is undeniable that faith plays an integral role in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. 

Faith communities play a lead role in civil society in the areas of giving, volunteering and community impact. Faith-based groups are highly trusted in their communities and give their time and money generously to a variety of causes: building schools, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for those who are homeless and addressing local issues they are intimately positioned to tackle.

Though formal religious affiliation is waning, we should not neglect to recognize – and to celebrate – the pivotal work faith-based groups continue to undertake in improving lives.

Here are some of the pivotal ways faith-based groups are improving lives:

  1. Funding: According to Giving USA’s 2021 Report, for the year 2020, contributions to faith-based organizations comprised 28%, or $131.08 billion, of all donations made to U.S. charities for the year. This was the largest subsector for giving and it demonstrates the major role faith-based giving plays in the philanthropic sector. It also is worth noting that many faith-inspired donors give generously to non-religious organizations as well.
  2. Voluntary service: Multiple studies including from the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and North Carolina State University note the correlation between faith and higher rates of volunteerism. Volunteers driven by their faith are often more consistent and persistent in their volunteerism, which helps provide critical manpower to local community groups, whether faith or non-faith based.
  3. Community impact: The Bridgespan Group’s 2021 report “Elevating the Role of Faith-Inspired Impact in the Social Sector” found that faith-inspired organizations are playing an essential role in their communities. These groups provide $2 of every $5, or 40%, on safety net services in six major representative cities. These services include food, shelter and educational programs. In fact, nearly 60% of emergency shelter beds in 11 cities studied “are maintained by religious providers, who also deliver many of the addiction, health care, education and job services needed to help those experiencing homelessness regain their independence.” 

Here are a few considerations for funders:

  1. Fund faith-based organizations: Though faith-inspired nonprofits provide 40% of social safety net services, funding to these groups makes up only 12% of total safety net funding from the 15 largest private foundations. According to the Bridgespan report, “Faith-inspired organizations represent only 2% of all grant dollars provided by those top-15 institutional philanthropies. … The stark divide raises questions about the lack of attention from institutional philanthropists, advisors and intermediaries in the social sector.” Of this data, one foundation leader says, “There are numerous faith actors doing critical things that – but for them – would not be accomplished. We need to demystify faith-based organizations and close the funding gap, because they can be innovative, high performing and have a tremendous impact.”
  2. Encourage interfaith dialogue and collaboration: One America Movement, a national nonprofit confronting toxic polarization in our society, encourages Americans this month and throughout the year to “serve, eat and speak to people who don’t look, think, vote or worship like you.” Our interactions with those of all faiths, backgrounds and opinions help us better understand, empathize and humanize others – and they strengthen us as individuals and as a society.
  3. Recognize the faith community and their leaders: If you know a person of faith who is faithfully leading and serving, take a moment to reach out and say thanks. A short phone call, a text message or a handwritten note to express gratitude for their contributions will help encourage and spur them forward.

Faith-based organizations remain a valued and trusted part of America’s past, present and future – and we celebrate and honor their significant contribution to the very fabric of our communities.  

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