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From #GivingTuesday to Giving USA, New Lessons for Faith-Based Organizations

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By The Rev. Nathaniel Katz

This past week's release of Giving USA's 2014 report noted that "giving to religion continues to slow; this is the result of declining religious affiliation and attendance and increased giving to religious-oriented charitable organizations categorized within the other subsectors." This trend, captured in Jumpstart Labs's recent finding in Connected to Give: Faith Communities (November 2013), and cited in Giving USA 2014, that 32 percent of American household charitable giving goes to religiously identified organizations, raises important questions about the role played by faith-based organizations play in advancing the common good. What opportunities do they bring, and what challenges do they face?

These were among the very questions posed and deliberated at the Faith+GivingTuesday+SocialGood summit this past December, which the United Nations cited among its top five favorite moments of the year.

Ethics, integrity, imagination. These are among the opportunities and challenges that faith-based nonprofit organizations bring to the broader social sector. They emerged in my conversations this past Dec. 3, when I joined a group of funders, leaders of faith-based nonprofits, aspiring social entrepreneurs, and representatives from local governments and universities at the Faith+GivingTuesday+SocialGood summit.

A group of foundations and community organizations, led by Jumpstart Labs in partnership with the Goldhirsh Foundation and Hershey Cause Communications, convened the afternoon gathering to explore the role that faith-based organizations (FBOs) play in philanthropy and social change. Their premise was that FBOs face multiple stereotypes, which they might be able to overcome through collaboration and cross-sector engagement. Attendees included funders, leaders of faith-based nonprofits, aspiring social entrepreneurs, and representatives from local governments and universities.

The date was no coincidence -- the second annual #GivingTuesday, a global initiative to encourage people around the world to support charitable causes -- and the summit marked the first time that the United Nations Foundation and 92Y, originators of the #GivingTuesday and +SocialGood initiatives, had permitted a mashup of the two concepts.

In his welcoming remarks, USC Dean of Religious Life Dr. Varun Soni spoke to the deep desire for meaning that motivates the students he works with on a daily basis. He noted that these students look to engage their spirituality through practical action rather than abstract belief systems. For that reason, the emergence of faith-based organizations will be crucial for the well-being of institutional faith and civic life alike.

Jumpstart Labs co-founder and CEO Dr. Shawn Landres opened Faith+Giving+Social Good by providing perspectives on religion and giving in the United States from Connected to Give, a new Jumpstart research series exploring the scope of giving to religiously identified organizations, and the extent to which religiosity influences charitable giving. The results are significant. According to Landres, nearly three quarters of American household charitable giving goes to congregations and nonprofit organizations with religious ties.

More than half of the study's respondents reported that their giving had been inspired by religious beliefs and practices. Most donors reported giving to both religious and secular charities, and Americans who identified as religious or spiritual tend to give more to charity than those who do not. The upshot was simple and significant -- faith remains a cornerstone to the improvement of social well being in the United States.

This was inspiring for a group of attendees who were already involved in faith-based philanthropic work or aspiring social entrepreneurs, but also frustrating. A common question filtered through the room -- "I'm not seeing that money. So, if I'm not and you're not, who is?"

Indeed, in one of the summit's three case studies, Devorah Brous, Executive Director of Netiya (click for video) , described the challenges of not simply of nurturing an interfaith network for urban agriculture, but in positioning that network alongside secular sustainability and food justice initiatives. She described how Netiya attempts to address those challenges by asking a simple, elegant, value-based question -- "Is the food we eat worthy of a blessing?"

To address this and other challenges, Faith+GivingTuesday+Social Good explored how to navigate the challenges of working for the secular public good from a faith-based perspective. Three themes emerged from the insights and best practices discussed throughout the afternoon: ethics, integrity, and imagination.

Ethics form a crucial bridge between faith-based organizations and their secular partners, especially in overcoming communications gaps, whether between FBOs and other nonprofits and grantmakers, but also between secular organizations and their donors and beneficiaries who bring religious commitments to their involvement. An FBO may be inspired by its theological beliefs to act for the broader public good. While those beliefs may provide the motivation and instruction for ethical action, it is the actions themselves that matter most. Rev. Mark Whitlock, Executive Director of USC's Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement, emphasized the importance of using ethical rather than theological language for faith-based organizations reaching out to secular funders and partners -- whether they be from the public, private or third sector. When engaging with secular partners, Whitlock said, it's not about theology but rather the fact that "we all speak passion for the poor." As people who share that passion, he remarked, "We know more about street talk than God talk."

Faith+GivingTuesday+SocialGood also was captured in social media - click through to see LA2050's recap of reactions as they unfolded.

Faith-based organizations that are successful in providing ethical service to a wider community often wrestle with how to maintain integrity to their given religious or spiritual traditions. Murtaza Sanwari described the experience of the UMMA Community Clinic (click for video), which he serves as board chair. UMMA was formed following the 1992 riots by Muslim healthcare professionals who wished to contribute their skills and expertise to improve the health of their surrounding communities. In doing so, they sought to demonstrate Muslims' commitment to the public good. More than 20 years later, UMMA is a respected provider of quality healthcare for those who lack insurance and could not otherwise access care. According to Sanawari, UMMA has managed to create "a little piece of heaven in the midst of chaos." The question that UMMA now faces as a credible, established agency is, "How do we broaden the community [being served] while remaining...with integrity in Islamic law?"

Continuing with the theme of integrity, Allison Lee, Los Angeles Executive Director of American Jewish World Service, offered #FaithGood attendees a preview of a forthcoming global public advocacy campaign. The campaign, titled "I Believe," seeks to increase awareness of the plight of women in the developing world. As a Jewish organization, AJWS works exclusively with non-Jewish partners throughout the world to improve the lives of non-Jews. Yet AJWS maintains its Jewish integrity by framing its campaign through a series of creedal statements that reflect core tenets of Jewish moral theology yet are inclusive of a set of global ethic of human dignity. For example, "We believe that every woman deserves to live a life free from violence." Lee's presentation offered an example for how faith-based organizations can claim authority in the public square by employing broad, ethical language while also maintaining theological integrity.

Perhaps the most consistent theme running throughout the day was imagination - a thread that runs through all faith traditions. Faith-based organizations are inspired through their respective traditions to push beyond what can be seen in order to bring about transformative social change. Javier Stauring, Director of the Healing Justice Coalition, described his organization's efforts to bring together families grieving the loss of children to gang violence with parents of juveniles sentenced to life sentences for committing violent offenses. That approach is one that secular funders struggle to embrace, as its efficacy is not easily assessed through the quantitative metrics that help to ensure return on investment.

Panelists throughout the day emphasized the need to be imaginative in presenting the faith-based approach to secular partners. Rev. Whitlock invoked the 11th commandment issued by Rev. Cecil Murray, the long-time pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, for expanding the church's ministries - "Thou shalt not be boring." That sentiment was echoed by Hyepin Im, President & CEO of Korean Churches for Community Development (click for video), who proudly said of KCCD, "We make Korean churches sexy." Her approach has garnered public support for Korean churches on both coasts and an invitation to the White House to contribute to the articulation of the Obama administration's efforts to reform immigration policy.

Nadia Roumani, Executive Director of The Muslim Giving Project, offered a special presentation that highlighted the imaginative problem solving approach she is incorporating from human centered design as a Fellow at the Institute of Design at Stanford University. That approach, recently highlighted by The New York Times, encourages social entrepreneurs to interview target populations in order to more accurately identify their needs and how best to meet those needs. Once a potential solution has been identified it is tested on a small scale, soliciting direct feedback from service recipients. That cycle of testing and feedback is repeated until the product or service is adequately refined. Roumani has adopted this process to develop an online tool that helps American Muslims to fulfill their religious obligations to charitable giving in a way that is both secure and transparent.

In his keynote address, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin acknowledged the values that inspire followers of different religious traditions to give generously - noting that Buddhism emphasizes giving as an expression of kindness while his own Jewish tradition emphasizes its connection to justice. However, Galperin called for FBOs to unite their values with the use of evidence-based metrics to demonstrate the impact of their good works to the wider community.

But do FBOs - particularly grassroots groups - have access to a level playing field or a seat at the table when it comes to funding and policy making? Many faith-based social innovators believe that they have been excluded from fellowship competitions, corporate sponsorship, and other funding sources. The summit's closing panel posed that question directly to CEOs of local secular grantmaking organizations. Their responses offered new perspectives on the role that faith-based organizations play in Southern California's civic life.

Brie Loskota, Managing Director of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture, began the discussion by returning to a point introduced during Galperin's keynote address - that the first step for FBOs in gaining a seat at the table is to demonstrate and communicate the outcomes they produce rather than the beliefs that motivate them.

Faith provided the initial grounding for Liberty Hill Foundation President and CEO Shane Goldsmith. That experience continues to influence her admiration for the good work that FBOs do in the community. From her vantage point leading a secular foundation that prioritizes outcomes over identity when evaluating grant applications, Goldsmith encouraged FBOs to proudly promote the real-world results they generate. She commented that FBOs often have strong track records for producing results when compared to their secular peers.

Some of the outcomes being achieved by FBOs have the potential for setting new benchmarks for their secular counterparts. Tara Roth, President of the Goldhirsh Foundation, specifically commented on the comparative advantage faith-based organizations hold in volunteer retention. She cited a statistic that 40% of volunteers choose to donate their time specifically to faith-based organizations. Of that volunteer base faith-based organizations report a 70% retention rate. Roth suggested that secular organizations could learn a great deal from their faith-based counterparts for lessons on how to foster greater levels of volunteer commitment. Tara also suggested that although faith-baith organizations' work is often grounded in tradition and history, that this should not stop FBOs from using new and innovative strategies to increase awareness and engagement.

Paul Vandeventer, President and CEO of Community Partners, described how his organization, in conjunction with Jumpstart, has set standards for supporting FBOs that can be used as best practices for engaging secular partnerships. Looking out at the assembled gathering of leaders and activists, Vandeventer remarked that "the desire to repair the world unites us here today," a unity shared amongst religious and secular organizations alike.

For those who attended Faith+Giving+Social Good, the conference served as an opportunity to build a community of faith-based leaders who are working tirelessly to improve the quality of life for the citizens of Southern California - believers and non-believers alike. Encouragement was found in finding others who share an inspired vision for what can be, as well as the struggles in making that vision a reality for people in every sort of need. In the midst of last year's holiday season, there was hope that faith-based organizations in Southern California could achieve a great deal of social good by Giving Tuesday 2014.

The Rev. Nathaniel Katz is the Director of Communications for the Claremont School of Theology and a Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.