An Assessment of "Faith Based" Policy

It presently is popular in the private and public sectors to support "faith based" nonprofit groups to run grassroots programs -- for example, in youth development, community policing, drug abuse counseling and job training. A White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has been launched.

Some say the White House office taps into a hope by Americans "that spiritual approaches can succeed where secular ones have failed."1 This is uninformed rhetoric, not reality. Contrary to the marketing of the ideology that nothing works, the Foundation has found that a great deal works. (See Vision and What Works.) The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is getting political leaders to finance the replication of what works to scale.

For the current policy debate to advance and mature:

"Faith Based" Experiments Need To Be Carefully Evaluated Before Significant Resources Are Committed

Senator Joseph Lieberman has suggested that concern over faith-based initiatives might be based in part on lack of respect for people of religion -- and on the view that faith is "not thought to be in fashion."2 This may be true. But the more fundamental issue is whether "faith based" works. There is no proof that "faith-based" organizations that assist the truly disadvantaged have a higher batting average than secular organizations, based on scientific evaluations. This is the Eisenhower Foundation's conclusion in a new assessment of over eighty nonprofit youth development organizations that received technical assistance from Foundation staff and consultants from 1990 to 2000. (See Lessons From the Street.) An organization was successful not because it was "faith based" or because it was secular. Rather, success was more likely if a nonprofit organization had sound institutional capacity -- for example, in terms of financial management, board leadership, staff development and good relationships with the community. Success also was more likely if a nonprofit organization could change the attitudes and behavior of youth into more positive directions. This required "tough love," social support and perseverance. "Tough love" usually involved "doing the right thing," which is a moral imperative. But we found successful organizations have a moral imperative, whether they are secular or "faith based." There were many secular grassroots successes in our study -- like the Argus Community, in the South Bronx, Delancey Street in San Francisco and the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston. They all were grounded on moral imperatives and on doing the right thing.3

Given the available evidence, we believe that, before significant resources are allocated to "faith based" groups, there need to be careful, larger scale evaluations. A cross section of "faith-based" programs needs to be compared to a cross section of secular nonprofit programs. Policy should be decided by the outcomes. Are "faith based" programs in general superior? Are secular nonprofit programs in general superior? Is the most cost-effective policy for the American taxpayer a mix -- where, for example, certain kinds of "faith-based" programs in certain circumstances are relatively more productive than secular nonprofits, and vice versa?

Because of the importance of nonprofit organization institutional capacity in creating positive outcomes, we need to carefully evaluate the effectiveness of new "faith based" groups that may be given resources by the new White House initiative. We need to compare the effectiveness of emerging groups to the effectiveness of more mature "faith based" groups with proven capacity. We need to evaluate the degree to which new "faith based" groups can build capacity through technical assistance.

This priority on careful evaluation before wholesale implementation reflects our concern that policy makers and media presently may be promoting "faith based" organizations at the expense of secular nonprofit organizations. For example, the Ten Point Coalition of Ministers in Boston has received national publicity for how it reduced violence in Dorchester and other Boston neighborhoods in the 1990s. We applaud the Coalition. But earlier in the 1990s, the secular, nonprofit Dorchester Youth Collaborative partnered with the Boston Police to reduce serious crime by twenty-six percent over three years in Dorchester. That success has received less publicity and media spin, even through the program's model, of combining youth safe havens with police ministations, has been successfully replicated in many other locations.4

The Model of Father Geno Baroni Needs To Be Embraced

A good model for the new White House office is Father Geno Baroni, the first federal assistant secretary for neighborhoods, at HUD in the late 1970s, and perhaps the first to bring in a "faith-based" perspective. Father Baroni's neighborhood self help development fund financed over 200 neighborhood groups. Some of them were "faith based." Most of them were secular. The goals of his funding to the nonprofit organizations were to build their capacities, reduce poverty, reduce inequality, construct and rehabilitate housing, and create coalitions among white urban ethnic groups, Asian Americans, African Americans and Latinos. For example, one of Father Baroni's proudest legacies was based on a $150,000 grant he made to Rabbi Samuel Lefkowitz in Brooklyn's Borough Park neighborhood. Rabbi Lefkowitz partnered in a coalition with leaders from the Latino community. Together, they renovated and managed 177 units of housing in a ten block area. They received $150,000 from Father Baroni and leveraged it into a $6,000,000 investment. At the groundbreaking, Father Baroni said, "[M]aybe most of the Jews and Hispanics don't like each other any more than they did a few years ago, but at least they're talking and working together."5

As the Baroni model suggests, the real potential of the new White House office is to advocate for federal financing directly to nonprofit organizations at the grassroots level. A disproportionate number of scientifically evaluated success are at the grassroots level, as we have seen in the model programs reviewed earlier. And we know from polling by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change (see "Devolution" Reform: Federally Funded, Locally Run), that citizens believe grassroots organizations play a much more important role day-to-day in solving local social problems than state or federal government. Public opinion therefore supports direct federal funding to the grassroots -- not funding via block grants to states, which currently is the fashion in Washington.

Father Baroni believed that nonprofit organizations receiving federal resources should be encouraged to advocate -- even if the advocacy is critical of the federal government.6

Many More Details Need To Be Worked Out

Pundits, the media and non-profit groups have asked many more questions beyond these -- addressing issues that must be resolved at the same time that we proceed with scientific evaluations. For example, columnist Cal Thomas and many others are concerned that religious organizations receiving subsidies "risk becoming an appendage of the party in power." In the words of an African-American minister, "The bottom line is the church must not be in fetters. It cannot be so deep with the government that it cannot speak out."7

Will "faith based" programs be monitored and held accountable -- to prevent abuses that already have been reported?8

How much funding will be available, and how will it be allocated? Will the total amount available to secular and "faith-based" nonprofit organizations be increased? Will funding only be increased for "faith-based" groups? Will the total amount remain the same, so that "faith-based" groups and secular groups must compete against one another?

Or will the total amount be reduced? For example, as part of "welfare reform," there has been a $7 billion decline in government food aid for the poor. "Faith based" charities have been promoted as both "kinder" and more cost-effective than government. Yet there is not enough food to go around. Private, nonprofit, "faith based" food pantries have responded with seemingly arbitrary eligibility rules, inflexible limits on aid and impersonal requirements. Consequently, many people unable to make ends meet because of low wages or serious health problems trudge from one food pantry to the next. Some of the people most in need are simply not able to play by all these "faith based" rules. In addition, a state charity tax credit is being proposed that would allow states to fund the credit with surplus federal welfare funds -- which were meant for the poor. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul.9

Other questions have been raised. Is too much priority being given to the notion that faith alone can reverse addiction or delinquency? (Decades of research have found little evidence.) If a program run by a religious institution is the only choice in a geographic area, and if you don't agree with the religion, what does a youth do? (In one study, sixty-five percent of respondents said there was no "secular alternative" to religious programs in their area.) Will federal resources be supplied disproportionately to politically correct religions? Will resources be available to groups like the Unification Church, the Hare Krishnas and the Church of Scientology? Will money be available to groups openly hostile to other religions? Will resources be allocated to groups that seek to convert those in other religions? Will money be available to groups that restrict jobs only to persons in their religion? Will new loopholes in civil rights laws thereby be created? Can groups apply resources to parochial school voucher schemes? Given public disapproval of vouchers, as illustrated in recent referendums, is "faith based" a new marketing venue for repackaging vouchers?10

Mentoring at-risk youth frequently is mentioned as an activity by faith based groups that will receive funding. However, there is little recognition of the limitations of mentoring. For example, if mentors are volunteers, it has been estimated that they cannot be effective without about $1,000 per year in training and supervision from paid staff.11 In addition, a comprehensive review for the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1990s reached these conclusions:12

The evidence from the ten available evaluations [four with control groups and six with comparison groups] consistently indicates that noncontingent, supportive mentoring relationships do not have desired effects on outcomes such as academic achievement, school attendance, dropouts, and various aspects of child behavior including misconduct. This lack of demonstrated effect has occurred whether mentors were paid or unpaid and whether mentors were college undergraduates, community volunteers, members of the business community or school personnel.

How will the policies of the new White House Office be structured to address these findings?

Initial proposals by the White House office call for deductions for charitable giving to middle and lower income taxpayers. But it is uncertain whether much of the revenue generated will end up in the hands of nonprofit organizations that are competent in implementing and replicating what has proven to work for the truly disadvantaged and the poor. And the charitable deduction may be more than offset by reduced giving as a result of repeal of the estate tax.


In sum, progress by the new White House "faith based" office will require good science, careful judgment and considerable trust.

Notes and Sources

  1. Nina Bernstein, "Charity Begins at the Rule Book," New York Times, December 24, 2000, p. WK5; Dana Milbank, "Senators Slow on 'Faith-Based' Aid," Washington Post, March 14, 2001, p. A1.
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  3. William Grieder, "Nader and the Politics of Fear," Nation, March 12, 2001; Dana Milbank, "Senators Slow on 'Faith-Based' Aid," Washington Post, March 14, 2001, p. A1; Laurie Goodstein, "In God We Trust. In Government We Hope for the Best," New York Times, February 4, 2001, p. WK3.
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  5. Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, Lessons From the Street: Capacity Building and Replication (Washington, DC: Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, 2000). This publication is posted in its entirety under Publications.
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  7. Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio, Comeback Cities (Boulder and Oxford, Westview Press, 2000). Also see Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, To Establish Justice, To Insure Domestic Tranquility: A Thirty Year Update of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Washington, DC: Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, 1999). This publication is posted in its entirety under Publications.
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  9. Lawrence M. O'Rourke, Geno: The Life and Mission of Geno Baroni (New York: Paulist Press, 1991, pp. 165-167).
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  11. Lawrence M. O'Rourke, Geno: The Life and Mission of Geno Baroni (New York: Paulist Press, 1991).
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  13. Laurie Goodstein, "In God We Trust. In Government We Hope for the Best," New York Times, February 4, 2001, p. WK3; Sue and Anne Pressley, "Religious Charities Under Fresh Scrutiny," Washington Post, February 11, 2000, p. A3.
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  15. Hanna Rosin, "Bush Put Faith In A Social Service Role," Washington Post, May 5, 2000, p. A1; Laurie Goodstein, In God We Trust. In Government We Hope for the Best," New York Times, February 4, 2001, p. WK3; and Dana Milbank, "Senators Slow on 'Faith-Based' Aid," Washington Post, March 14, 2001, p. A1.
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  17. Ibid.
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  19. Laurie Goodstein, "In God We Trust. In Government We Hope for the Best," New York Times, February 4, 2001, p. WK3; Hanna Rosin, "Bush Puts Faith In A Social Service Role," Washington Post, May 5, 2000, p. A1; Thomas B. Edsall, "Jewish Leaders Criticize Faith Based Initiative," Washington Post, February 27, 2001, p. A4; Thomas B. Edsall, "Robertson Joins Liberals In Faulting Bush's Faith Based Plan," Washington Post, February 22, 2001, p. A5; Dana Milbank and Thomas B. Edsall, "Faith Initiative May be Revised," Washington Post, March 12, 2001, p. A1.
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  21. Cynthia L. Sipe, Mentoring (Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures, 1996).
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  23. James C. Howell, editor, Guide for Implementing the Comprehensive Strategy for Serious Violent and Juvenile Offenders (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, June, 1995).
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