How Faith-based Organizations Work

Faith-based organizations are grounded in the belief that they have a religious obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged.
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Thieves, prostitutes, gamblers and drunks were all welcome at the sermons William Booth gave in a tent in the East End of London in the 1860s. In fact, they were some of the evangelical minister's most devout followers.

While other churches rejected them because of their sordid pasts, "The General" as Booth's congregation came to call him, preached salvation for all people, particularly the poor and "undesirables." As his "army" of followers grew into the thousands, one moved to Philadelphia in 1879, marking the birth of the Salvation Army in the United States [source: Salvation Army].


Today, the Salvation Army is one of the largest social services providers in the world, running homeless shelters, community centers, disaster relief programs and thrift stores in 118 countries.

It is also a faith-based organization -- one of thousands of charities in the U.S. whose missions are grounded in the belief that they have a religious obligation to help the poor and disadvantaged. They differ from secular charities like the Red Cross and United Way in that their call to serve is based on scripture from the New Testament, the Torah, or other religious texts.

Faith-based charities like the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America, Lutheran Social Services and Jewish Family & Children's Service provide a huge array of services to the nation's sick, elderly and poor.

They own hospitals and nursing homes, run mental health clinics, provide substance abuse treatment, build affordable housing and offer job training and after-school programs [source: Salmon].

In fact, 70 percent of the United States' food pantries are run by faith-based nonprofits, as are 27 percent of emergency shelters and halfway houses. Moreover, one out of every six child-care centers is run by a church or synagogue [source: De Vita].

Read on to find out how they get their funding.


Grants for Faith-based Organizations

Nine days after former President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, he signed an executive order establishing the Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives to give federal grants to religious organizations for providing social services.

Historically, federal and state agencies have been prohibited from contracting with faith-based organizations to provide these services because the U.S. Constitution mandates a separation between church and state. Over the years, however, a series of laws have included provisions allowing government agencies to contract with religious organizations to provide social services needed to carry out the goals of that law.


In 1996, Congress passed a welfare reform law that instituted a major overhaul of the system that shifted the focus from providing cash assistance to helping poor people find jobs. A provision of that law allowed states to use their Temporary Assistance to Needy Children (TANF) block grants from the federal government to contract with faith-based organizations to provide services such as job training to welfare recipients [source: De Vita].

A similar provision was also in the Substances Abuse & Prevention & Treatment Block Grant created in 1992, which allowed treatment centers run by faith-based organizations to receive public funding. As a result of these provisions, faith-based organizations receive millions in federal funding each year. Catholic Services, for one, gets 65 percent of its funding from the government [source: Salmon].

To address the potential violations of the separation of church and state doctrine, these laws prohibit faith-based organizations from using public money to support "inherently religious activities," such as worship or evangelism. The organizations also have to offer clients who don't want religious counsel the alternative of switching to a secular program [source: De Vita].

Read on to find out how you can help.


Helping Faith-based Organizations

Helping faith-based organizations includes everything from donating clothes and furniture to the Salvation Army to volunteering at Theodora House, a halfway house in Indianapolis for women transitioning from prison back into the community [source: Volunteers of America].

Most faith-based charitable organizations are nonprofits that rely on donations and volunteers, in addition to public funding, to survive. Choosing which faith-based organization to help typically depends on what your religious beliefs. However, you can provide assistance to a faith-based organization that isn't of your same faith but that supports social issues that interest you.


Shalom Denver, a division of Jewish Family Service of Colorado, helps welfare recipients reenter the workforce through job training and counseling [source: Kirsh]. Christian Service Mission provides case management for noncustodial parents in child support cases and runs shelters for battered women and children as well as the homeless [source: Christian Service Mission].

Volunteers of America, which serves 2 million people in 44 states, operates adult residential treatment programs as well as programs for troubled youth, people with disabilities and senior citizens [source: Volunteers of America]. Lutheran Social Services, founded in 1881, runs foster care programs and provides adoption services [source: Lutheran Social Services].

Most of these organizations have training programs for volunteers. You can find details of how to get involved on their Web sites. How evangelical they are while administering social services vary from charity to charity. One faith-based after-school program for kids uses Bible stories in its reading comprehension tutoring. Another requires its substance abuse patients to attend chapel.

Others, however, have a historical basis in religion but don't necessarily preach the gospel while providing food, shelter and other services to the disadvantaged.

For more on volunteering and faith-based organizations, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Christian Science Mission. "Who Are We?" (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • De Vita, Carol; Finegold, Kenneth; Kramer, Fredrica and Wherry, Laura. "Federal Policy on the Ground: Faith-Based Organizations Delivering Local Services." Urban Institute. 7/28/05. (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • Kirsh, Jonathan. "Shalom Denver: Stories of Success." (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • Lutheran Social Services. "About Us." (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • National Service Resources. "Contributions of Faith-Based Organizations." (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • Salmon, Jacqueline. "Government Cutbacks Leave Faith-Based Services Hurting." The Washington Post. 2/20/09. (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • Salvation Army. "History." (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • Volunteers of America. "About Us." (Accessed 5/15/09)
  • Volunteers of America. "Theodora House." (Accessed 5/15/09)