When I was in England last month working with a religiously-affiliated client, the project supervisor asked me: "So what do you think your new President's 'faith-based initiative' will mean for volunteering in the United States?" I realized that it was hard to answer the question. One reason, of course, is that the Bush Administration has yet to explain its plans for this program in concrete terms. But I found myself wondering whether we can make any predictions or--more importantly--whether we might take a proactive stance and make the initiative work for us.
Nothing New or Something to Fear?
There is nothing new about our society's reliance on religiously-affiliated organizations to provide social services, including the fact that many such groups have been contracting with government at all levels for decades. In fact, the implication that turning to faith-based groups for help is somehow new and untried is quite strange. However, in the past, faith-based services that sought government funds were generally incorporated as 501 (c)(3)s to be independent of their sponsoring houses of worship. And, by accepting public money, they usually agreed to provide at least some of their services to people of any faith. In terms of volunteer involvement, many of these existing groups begin their recruitment "in house," seeking help from the congregations of the sponsoring faith, but also welcoming volunteers of any religious background.
The fears attending the new Bush initiative come from several angles. First, there are many Americans who fervently believe that the separation of church and state is in danger if government money can now be used to support activities that not only "serve," but "preach." Second, those belonging to non-Christian faiths are concerned that they will not be able to compete for funds and attention when facing the majority religion. Third, churches and other religious settings may want to obtain money, but not at the expense of required reporting to the government or adherence to outside standards. Fourth, secular nonprofit organizations fear that faith-based programs may be treated differently, resulting in lowered standards of service and unfair competition for limited resources.
What's interesting, of course, is that there seems to be no evidence that faith-based groups asked for this new attention! It seems driven by the President's own agenda and many are suspicious that it is yet another smokescreen for divesting government of expensive social obligations.
… Or… What We Make of It?
This is not a forum for partisan political discussions and that is not why I am raising the subject. But we in the volunteer community may be able to take this new attention to religious groups and make it work to the advantage of our organizations. Almost 25 years ago, Marlene Wilson wrote an article in what was then Voluntary Action Leadership magazine entitled "Religion: The Sleeping Giant." In it she spoke of the enormous potential of churches, synagogues, mosques and meetings to mobilize thousands of volunteers, acting on their faith and moral principles, to tackle social needs. She noted that religious congregations needed to understand the principles of volunteer management in order to be effective, and she correctly predicted a rise in the number of paid staff assigned to such functions as "Director of Lay Ministry." However, the potential of which she spoke has not been fully realized. Maybe the time is right to increase our efforts in this direction.
In truth, most secular volunteer programs have not found it easy to galvanize faith-based volunteers, who tend to prefer service centered on their own congregations or in organizations affiliated with their faith. Because many churches are themselves facing changes in their membership and, in some places, have been losing members, "outside" volunteer recruitment can be seem as competitive to "church family" identity. Naturally, in a country of our size and with our diversity of faiths, we can also find examples of the opposite behavior. Historically it has been religious congregations who stepped in when needs were great, whether with emergency goods for the poor or in political advocacy, from the Underground Railroad to the Central American sanctuary movement.
I suspect--and am eager to hear from you about--that faith-based groups are right now asking themselves what the new political climate means and what they would actually like to do about it. Do they want to start programs with government funds? Do they want to become more involved in meeting community needs?
This is where any leader of volunteers can come in. Take the initiative and start a dialogue. For example:
- Take a walk around your neighborhood and inventory the houses of worship within walking distance of your agency. Extend an invitation to each of them to send a representative to an open house to discuss possible collaboration on behalf of an issue affecting the community you share. Or hold individual meetings with each congregation, discussing ways to meet both their needs and the needs of your clients. In either case, your opening would be: "Since the new Administration is so interested in faith-based initiatives, we thought we could open a dialogue with our neighboring houses of workshop and see what this might mean right in our own backyard."
- Using a similar pitch, why not engage current volunteers in possible outreach to their own congregations? They may never have seen the connection between the volunteer work they do as individuals and the lay ministry goals of their clergy and fellow congregants. Of course this would be a totally voluntary option, since some volunteers will not want to become a liaison to their faith community for you. But others will be excited at the possibility of representing your work to their worship family and, in turn, offering their friends the chance to join them as volunteers.
- Do some research (a great job for an interested volunteer!) on service projects local faith communities already do: soup kitchens, after-school tutoring, adult education programs, various fundraisers. Do any of these have a logical connection to your agency or its clients? Is there a way you can propose a collaboration with mutual benefits?
What does your crystal ball tell you about the impact of the Bush Administration's Faith-Based Initiatives on volunteering? If you are outside the United States, what experiences can you share to give Americans new ideas for working with communities of faith? What experiences--good or not--have you had in the past in working with religious groups? Are you yourself in a faith community discussing this Initiative, and what is being said? What possibilities do you see for increasing the amount of collaboration or recruitment of new volunteers?
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