By Melissa Spas, Managing Director of Education & Engagement
Nonprofit organizations of all kinds have been making a range of adjustments to address the disruptions and challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic fallout, and renewed attention to racial equity and civil rights. For faith-based nonprofits, the distinctives of religious identity and donor motivation remain important assets, for doing the work and for inviting others to participate in the mission through new ways of relating to partnership, program, and advancement. Even while religious affiliation and membership continue to decline, faith remains an important factor in the nonprofit landscape.
President Biden’s announcement of the reestablishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, led by Melissa Rogers, Josh Dickson and Trey Baker, also signals a renewed recognition of the place that religious organizations play in addressing social issues on the ground. With a particular attention in this announcement to the role of religious pluralism and Black religious organizations, we can expect that faith-based nonprofit organizations will continue to be at the table for a national-level conversation about poverty, justice, equity, and social goods.
In February, Charities Aid Foundation of America (CAF), in concert with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, published their sixth report on the impact of the pandemic on nonprofit organizations overall. Some relevant key findings include the ongoing challenge with fundraising (72.54% reported reduced contributions) and the increased need for frontline nonprofit services, or a need to develop new, responsive programs (40.74% reported increased costs). Dan Cardinali, executive director of Independent Sector, noted this reality in his recent article for Stanford Social Innovation Review: “The US nonprofit sector and people in diverse communities nationwide are facing unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, economic recession that has a weakened safety net, and movement for equity in our nation’s racial reckoning. In addition, the nationwide demand for services is spiking while traditional fundraising and fee-for-service income has taken a significant hit.” Faith-based 501c3 organizations in the US encounter this same landscape. While these may be familiar challenges, tied to rising economic inequality and the persistent crisis of racial inequities, they have been compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. This is a new context, but the needs, problems, and challenges of the nonprofit sector are ones that faith-based nonprofit leaders have been grappling with for some time, and for which they are well prepared. Again, the CAF report showed that nonprofit organizations evaluated highly their ability to pivot and adapt, particularly when it came to programming for the digital age, and adding relevant new programs to meet needs. However, while most organizations (57.42%) reported that they created new fundraising strategies and campaigns, a much smaller proportion of leaders evaluated those efforts positively (31.42%). Fundraising in changed context continues to require innovation, persistence, and imagination.
Religious identity and motivation are intimately tied to the missional approach and priority of faith-based nonprofits. Organizations do the work that they do in order to be responsive to the teaching, values, and commitments of religious faith, and individual contributors make that religious connection as well, in their roles as staff, donors, or volunteers committed to the mission of the organization.
We now know much more about how congregations are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on their operations, fundraising, and mission, and this has important ties to the work of other nonprofit groups. One key point of connection is around the relationship between religious congregations and faith-based nonprofit organizations. In our recent study, 30% of congregations reported that they directed funds or conducted fundraising to support another organization in the first six months of the pandemic. We know that this is a priority for US congregations, with 98% reporting collaborations related to service or mission with other nonprofit groups in the National Study of Congregations’ Economic Practices. Faith-based nonprofit organizations benefit from the health and missional emphasis of congregations, and they also have significant strengths of their own that lend power and impact to the religious landscape, which extends well beyond the limits of congregational life. These organizations have an opportunity to shine as they rise to meet the familiar challenges that have been accelerated or catalyzed in this new context.