Foundations, Religious Groups Urged To Join Forces

By Meg Sommerfeld — June 22, 1994 3 min read

But in recent years, more funders have been willing to support social and education programs run by religious groups, particularly in minority communities.

Foundations and religious organizations must work together more closely and expand joint efforts to help their communities, agreed some 150 grantmakers, religious leaders, and others gathered at a conference here last week.

The conference on philanthropy and religion, held at the Washington Cathedral, was the first major national meeting of its kind, according to its organizers, the Episcopal cathedral and the Council on Foundations.

As society struggles with issues such as violence, poverty, and hunger, participants said, there is a greater need for churches and other religious institutions to reach outside their doors into surrounding neighborhoods.

Like schools, many religious organizations in recent years have taken on greater community responsibilities, increasingly serving as centers for educational, health, and human services.

“Organized religion and organized philanthropy are natural allies in helping communities assess and affirm the shared values that can provide social bonding and civic solidarity,’' said James A. Joseph, the president of the Council on Foundations, which is based here.

Mr. Joseph urged the participants to help “depoliticize’’ the public discussion of values.

“Those who talk most about promoting ‘good values’ too often want simply to argue that someone else has ‘bad values,’'' said Mr. Joseph, who is an ordained minister.

“People everywhere are searching for clarity and vision, yearning for values that are fundamental and enduring,’' he continued. “When we go beyond the politics of values, and even the parochialism of dogma, we find that there is a general consensus among Americans of all groups about which private virtues are essential to good character: honesty, loyalty, self-discipline, courage, work, responsibility, compassion, and the like.’'

Jumping Into the Community

Participants also listened to presentations about model partnerships that link churches, philanthropic organizations, and other community groups.

In Paterson, N.J., for example, 17 congregations, the Congress of National Black Churches, and Hoffman-LaRoche Inc., a pharmaceutical company, have joined to create the Roche-Paterson Black Churches Family Initiative. The alliance awards grants to churches that operate programs addressing concerns that include substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and illiteracy.

In Dallas, a community-involved coalition of Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches was born in part out of a membership crisis.

When Grace United Methodist Church found itself with only a handful of older members, no children, and dwindling revenues, its congregation realized that dramatic action was necessary.

It was time for a “bungee jump’’ out into the community, recalled William Jennings Bryan 3rd, the church’s pastor.

Soon after, Grace United Methodist joined with several other churches in similar circumstances to form the East Dallas Cooperative Parish. The nonprofit alliance collectively operates preschools, including one for non-English-speaking children; an Asian ministry; parenting classes; a food pantry; and free legal and medical clinics.

“It’s a brave new land for many churches,’' Mr. Jennings said.

A Traditional Reluctance

Traditionally, a Council on Foundations publication notes, both private grantmakers and government agencies have been reluctant to fund religious groups for fear of appearing to endorse a particular belief.

But in recent years, more funders have been willing to support social and education programs run by religious groups, particularly in minority communities.

One conference participant, however, expressed concern that there were not enough foundations new to the topic present at the meeting.

“What we have here are people who need funds and funders who have some history of supporting these groups,’' said William Howard, a representative of the New York Theological Seminary. “We have a shortage here of the unconverted funders.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 22, 1994 edition of Education Week as Foundations, Religious Groups Urged To Join Forces To Combat Societal Ills