Congregations Delivering Services Without Government Funds

Congregations Delivering Services Without Government Funds

American congregations are delivering a wide-range of social services – from marriage counseling to food pantries – to their members and surrounding communities. But relatively few congregations are applying for government funds to provide those services, or know about changes in federal law over the last 10 years meant to ease the way for them to do so.

Of those congregations that have competed for government funds, almost 80 percent report difficulty in applying for and managing the grants. Those that did not apply listed concern about external control and a lack of space for new grant-funded activities as their key reasons.

Those are part of the results of a survey released December 5 by the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy at its annual conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The report, “American Congregations and Social Service Programs,” was based on a survey conducted for the Roundtable by John Green, political science professor at the University of Akron and a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, with financial support from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Clearly, American congregations have served a critical role for a long time in serving their members and their communities,” Green said. “This report details the various ways that congregations with different resources deliver those services and the challenges they face in doing so.”

The survey results are particularly significant in light of the goals of the Bush Administration's nearly seven-year-old Faith-Based and Community Initiative. That effort seeks to encourage smaller religious charities to contract with the government to provide services. The congregations surveyed represent the very types of religious groups targeted by the Initiative – smaller, grassroots organizations, as opposed to longstanding faith-based social service providers with established national reach.

“Many congregations are working to expand their social service efforts, as government officials have encouraged. But this report shows that barriers to partnerships between government and faith-based groups remain,” said Richard P. Nathan, co-director of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, parent to the Roundtable. “For many congregational leaders, the government contracting process remains daunting. And few have the organizational structure in place to manage such contracts.

“If government is to increasingly partner with such groups, there remains a lot of work to do,” Nathan said.

In terms of congregations' readiness for expansion, the report shows the largest administrative challenges facing congregations that provide services to be evaluating programs, recruiting and keeping volunteers, and attracting new clients.  About half the congregations reported having administrative practices that would be a necessity for organizations receiving and managing public funds, such as a recently audited financial statement (53.1 percent), secure records storage and retrieval (52.8 percent), written personnel policies (52.0 percent), and capital improvement reserves (50.2 percent). Other essential practices were even less common, such as written conflict of interest polices (25.1 percent), a formal volunteer training program (24.2 percent), evaluation of program outcomes (24.0 percent), formal attendance records (22.0 percent), and formal polices for overhead charges (19.5 percent).

For the last seven years, the mission of the independent, nonpartisan Roundtable has been, broadly, to examine the relationship between government and religious charities and, more specifically, track the progress of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based and Community Initiative.

“American Congregations and Social Service Programs” is based on a survey of a random sample of American congregations of all faiths, conducted in the summer and fall of 2007. The survey generated 1,692 usable responses. Respondents were reached by mail, e-mail, web-based questionnaires and telephone contacts.

The report categorizes congregations based on their level of social service activity. The most active in terms of social service programs are labeled as having “Comprehensive Activity” and make up 10.3 percent of the congregations surveyed. Next comes “Extensive Activity,” at 23.2 percent, “Moderate Activity” at 32.9 percent, “Specialized Activity” at 16.1 percent and “Limited Activity” at 17.5 percent.

The report provides detailed information about the activity of these congregations, including the types of programs they are most likely to provide. Of 26 social service program areas listed in the survey, marriage counseling was the one most commonly provided by congregations (offered by two-thirds of respondents) and vocational training was the least common (offered by less than one-tenth).

The survey found no clear-cut relationship between the religious characteristics or theology of a congregation and the level of social service activity. Instead, the size of the congregation turned out to be a greater predictor of the likelihood of service provision. Congregations that were more active in social service delivery tended to have experienced growth over the last decade, were more diverse in terms of race and income, and had younger members than less active congregations.

Other highlights of the survey include:

  • The largest sources of revenue for congregations were from individual contributions and special fundraising.
  • Most congregations reported that the religious content in their programs was either present and non-mandatory, or offered on a voluntary basis to program recipients. Relatively few reported making religious content a condition of receiving services.
  • Most congregations expected to expand their social service programs in the future. Topping the list of reasons for expansion was that needs are getting more severe.
  • Other than full-time clergy and part-time professional office staff, most congregations had no paid employees. One-half of all the congregations reported agreement with religious/faith commitment being a requirement for hiring. Another one-quarter agreed that religious/faith commitment is preferred for hiring, and one-tenth of the congregations agreed that religious/faith commitment is not relevant to hiring.

The Roundtable is a project of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy arm of the State University of New York. It receives financial support from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Based in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.