Faith-based change – $100M initiative

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A quiet revolution in the way Americans care for one another is unfolding from a base of operations at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The pioneering effort, directed by a former chairman of the school’s psychiatry department, aims to build a national network of volunteer interfaith coalitions to serve people with chronic disease or disabilities.

Funded with $100 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., the Faith in Action program embraces the civic work of faith-based groups at a time of growing attention to the community role they play.

Congress is debating a plan by President Bush to boost government support for faith-based groups that deliver social services, with conservatives and liberals alike fearing such support might wrongly mingle church and state.

And a recent Harvard study that examined social networks in three-dozen U.S. communities – including Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte, N.C. – found religious congregations bucking the tide of eroding civic connectedness.

Burton Reifler, the former psychiatry chairman who directs Faith in Action, believes interfaith volunteer coalitions work because they meet a critical civic need by tapping a basic religious impulse – while avoiding governmental or denominational interference.

“A common element in all religions is the mandate to do good works,” he says. “People trust houses of worship and the religious institutions in their communities.”

Faith in Action is the largest program ever funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the biggest U.S. health-care philanthropy – and builds on the foundation’s previous bet that interfaith coalitions might be a prescription for long-term U.S. health-care needs.

After helping to create a network of more than 1,000 coalitions in the 1980s and 90s, the foundation last winter announced it would invest $100 million to create 2,000 new coalitions over seven years.

Reifler aims to make Faith in Action “a household word” akin to Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

In addition to seed grants of $35,000, Faith in Action will give local coalitions technical support over the 30-month grant period to help them sustain themselves over the long-term.

That support includes volunteer recruitment and training, board development, coalition-building, fundraising, financial management, public relations and communications, and strategic planning.

Faith in Action works closely with the Interfaith Caregivers Alliance, a Kansas City membership group that also is supported by Robert Wood Johnson and will provide continuing technical support for coalitions after their grants end.

Tom Brown, former assistant vice chancellor for community outreach at the N.C. School of the Arts, is director of grant operations at Faith in Action, which funds 34 coalitions in North Carolina.

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