Wing and a prayer: how mistrust of faith-based charities sells society short

Source: The Guardian


Faith-based charities play a distinctive and often unappreciated role in society but need to reflect on perceptions that they want to convert people and help only those who share their beliefs.

Suspicion of faith-based charities, although “generally unfounded”, could stop them playing a bigger part in delivery of public services, according to an 18-month study by the New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) thinktank.
As many as one in four registered charities is said to be faith-based, which NPC defines as “a charity that embodies some form of religious belief – or cultural values arising from a religious belief – in its vision or mission, founding history or project content”. Together, faith-based charities raise more than £16bn a year.
The NPC report, What a Difference a Faith Makes, says having a grounding in faith can:

  • help charities stay motivated and stick with causes others may see as hopeless
  • make them more resilient to changes in the policy and funding environment
  • enable them to engage people seen as vulnerable or too hard to reach
  • allow them to deliver services that are culturally appropriate and to consider people’s spiritual needs.

The contribution of faith-based charities is undervalued even within the voluntary sector itself, the report finds, with their profile and the trust placed in them often undermined by concern about their motives.

When NPC surveyed faith-based charities for the study, it found disagreement among them about whether it was acceptable to admit they aimed to increase the number of people who shared their faith, or whether that was proselytising.
Even though the study found little evidence to support fears of proselytism, it says it remains an issue. “Faith-based charities should be aware of this and, if necessary, should spend time considering it and clarifying their position on this issue,” say report authors Lucy de Las Casas and Rachel Wharton.

Senior Labour MP Stephen Timms, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society, said at the report’s launch on 29 November that there were widespread concerns about proselytism among local councils responsible for placing service contracts. “The evidence is that it doesn’t happen, but you cannot say it’s inconceivable,” he said.
Timms’s group is promoting a “faith covenant” to set out what a council can expect of a faith-based charity and what such a charity can expect of a council. So far, it has been adopted by Birmingham, Leeds, Solihull, Calderdale and the London borough of Barnet. “It’s very much in the national interest that faith groups should be able to release their very, very large potential, that new initiatives with a faith starting point should be able to flourish,” Timms said.

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