Loaves and Fishes: Social Service Delivery in the Religious Milieu

Last week I had the opportunity to present a seminar on faith-based social work practice to a group of over 50 leaders of religiously affiliated social service organizations in Seoul, Korea and sponsored by the Korea Association of Social Welfare for a Sustainable Future Management. I focused many of my remarks on the effectiveness of social service programs offered through religiously affiliated organizations (RAOs). Note, I intentionally avoid the term “faith-based” since it has become such a politically charged term and I don’t think it rightly captures the full extent of programs and services. To argue for this paradigm shift is to suggest that the broader term better reflects a wider array of organizations.

Local congregations and clergy have long been involved in the provision of social welfare in the United States. From Colonial America when religious leaders were the exclusive providers of services, to the modern welfare state that delivers professionalized and specialized services through various public and private mechanisms, religiously affiliated organizations have been active participants. Federal and state governments actively partner with RAOs including the most well-known groups like Catholic Charities and the Jewish Federation, and the lesser-known local congregations that dot the landscape of the delivery system. I might argue these partnerships stem from two aspects unique to the United States. First is the simple fact that early European colonists were religiously devout and arrived on the eastern shores of America in search of religious freedom. This has forever shaped our identity in the US. Second, our early “welfare” efforts were modeled from the English system where religious leaders were responsible for the poor, the widows, and the orphans within their parish (used here as a geographic term). As such, our discourse about poverty and social problems has vacillated between individualistic and systemic orientations. That is, we have at times considered social problems to be linked with moral and spiritual depravity rendering the church as the best solution, and at other times we have recognized structural causes (e.g., economic recessions) which beg for professionalized services. I caution us against assuming the spiritual depravity sentiment because this only serves to demonize the poor and ignores the structural forces that are beyond one’s control. Yes, as a people of faith we minister to others in hopes that their spirit and our spirit might become more whole; but we don’t “fix” spiritual depravity because in so doing one will miraculously climb their way out of poverty.

I want to highlight briefly here what I found in a recent review of the literature regarding effectiveness of organizations and the services they provide. According to one study done a few years ago, there are over 58,000 independent RAOs in the United States. In many cities across the US, social services are offered in parallel by both RAOs and secular organizations. Further, RAOs provide a disproportionate share of essential social services in low-income communities (see Bielefeld & Cleveland. (2013). Faith-based organizations as service providers and their relationship to government. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 42 (3), 468-494.). You might wonder what types of services RAOs provide…lots and lots. Everything from education to advocacy, mental health counseling to disaster planning and response. We are on the frontlines working to improve lives and change systems!

Much debate has ensued about the effectiveness and efficiency of RAO services over the past two decades since Charitable Choice was written in to the 1996 welfare reform act. Some studies have found that RAOs are equally effective in delivering services as compared to their secular counterparts while other studies have argued RAOs “cherry-pick” clients thereby unfairly enhancing their effectiveness claims. Client-level factors are important to the effectiveness of programs and services. Some research argues that clients choosing to receive services from RAOs might already be incorporating pro-social behaviors into their lives (e.g., reading scripture) leading to enhanced self-efficacy. Other research has pointed to the ability of RAOs to provide ongoing motivation and wraparound support systems through the effective use of volunteers as a key to program effectiveness vis-à-vis their secular counterparts. I might also argue that participants in RAO programs and services have access to faith-based social capital that links them to important resources necessary to enhance their well-being.

Organizational level factors are also important to consider. RAOs are just as likely to have organizational problems as their secular counterparts. Issues related to money such as fraud, embezzlement, and the general misuse of funds are just as likely to happen in RAOs even though we might assume differently. This finding is particularly important to consider when planning audit and oversight functions within RAOs, including congregations that seek to begin systematic social service delivery programs. Limited funding and over reliance on volunteers might limit the work of RAOs. When RAOs take public funding, they could be at risk of compromising their mission as they adhere to public mandates and restrictions. And we cannot forget about program evaluation – we have historically been lax when it comes to using clear, verifiable, scientific program evaluation methods.

Collaborations are important methods RAOs can employ to deliver services and programs. I won’t go into deep detail here but direct you to a thoughtful article on the topic, the findings of which I highlight (Thomas, M.L. (2009). Faith and collaboration: A qualitative analysis of faith-based social service programs in organizational relationships. Administration in Social Work, 33 (1), 40-60. doi: 10.1080/03643100802508643). Thomas argues that effective collaborations can be formal (relationship is legal and contractual) or informal (a generally understood agreement), and autonomous (cooperative but independent) or integrated (mutual responsibility). Flexibility, reaching hard-to-serve populations, and perseverance are typical characteristics of RAOs that make them good collaborators. Many RAOs are able to provide personalized attention that is not possible in secular programs. But successful collaboration requires skill in maintaining and adapting organizational procedures that enhance the collaboration and bridge distinct organizational practices, missions, and agendas.

So what were the lessons learned?

  1. RAOs must consider quality governance and accountability structures.
  2. Religious congregations have been and will always be important gateways to social service access.
  3. Collaborations can extend the reach of RAOs, but important considerations must be made.
  4. Successful programs identify and clearly articulate an unmet need.
  5. RAOs can build important capacity within the system to address unmet needs (e.g., ongoing mentoring).
  6. RAOs must evaluate their programs and learn from successes and failures.

That’s all I have for you today as I fly over mainland China on my way from Korea to Vietnam. I hope you can soon find a way to provide others with loaves and fishes, nourishment for their journey ahead.

Photos: Myeong-dong Catholic Cathedral, Seoul, Korea


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