Theory to practice: Churches weak on ‘charitable choice’

John Strange John Strange

When federal law was changed in the mid 1990s to allow faith-based organizations to receive government funds to provide social services in the community, many thought congregations would jump at the new opportunity.

While churches and other houses of worship voiced an early interest, new research says few followed through.

With the Charitable Choice provision of 1996’s welfare reform, scholars almost immediately began researching the organizational capacity of religious congregations and faith-based organizations, speculating as to how the organizations would respond to the government’s call to promote faith-based human services.

A new study tells us that the government’s faith-based initiatives didn’t really change most congregations’ behaviors and missions, even if interest in government-sponsored services remains high.

Charitable Choice fully welcomed congregations and other houses of worship into the arena of social-service contracts with state and federal governments, an area previously open almost exclusively to secular nonprofits, some of the larger religiously-affiliated nonprofits, and commercial enterprises.

President George W. Bush embraced Charitable Choice with his own faith-based initiatives, opening the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (now the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in the Obama administration) and increasing legitimacy for the role of religion and faith in the provision of human services.

At the time, some national religious organizations, such as Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and Jewish Community Services, already enjoyed contractual relationships with state and federal governments.

Such relationships with churches, however, were forbidden.

Again, the questions from the nation’s universities were fairly specific: Do congregations and other organizations have the capacity, the interest and the knowledge to take on this work? Which and how many are likely to embrace this new opportunity?

Mark Chaves, currently at Duke University, wrote in 1999 that there was “potential for substantial change in congregations’ relations with government and in their role as providers of social services to poor people.” (His article appeared in the December 1999 issue of “American Sociological Review.”)

Using data from the 1998 National Congregations Study, Chaves found that about 36 percent of congregations were interested in applying for government funds, and that liberal and moderate congregations, especially African-American congregations, seemed more likely than others to pursue such opportunities.

However, in Chaves’ new study, published in the April 2010 issue of “Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly” and co-written by Bob Wineburg of the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, the authors find that a vast majority of congregations did not follow through on their interest.

Chaves and Wineburg used the 2006 National Congregations Study, and compared the numbers with the 1998 version.

They found that while interest in government funding for services is still high — up to 47 percent of the leaders of the congregations said they “would apply for government funding if it were available,” — such interest was not reflected in the data.

“There is no increase in the number of congregations doing social services, receiving government funding, or collaborating with government or secular nonprofits on social services,” report Chaves and Wineburg.

Keep in mind here that Chaves and Wineburg looked exclusively at congregations.

Their study did not include religious and faith-based organizations or conferences, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, religious conferences and the like.

Chaves and Wineburg also note their work seems consistent with a California study that only a third of religious organizations that had received a government grant with the launch of a faith-based initiative still had a grant six years later.

“It is too early to tell, but we suspect that this pattern … will prove typical,” Chaves and Wineburg say.

John Strange is a doctoral student in public administration at N.C. State University and a 20-year veteran of the nonprofit communications field.

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