What makes faith charities a distinctive part of the sector?

This is a short summary of my reflections in Charity Finance magazine in September. There isn’t any fixed definition of a ‘faith charity’ – appropriately enough it’s a matter of belief – charities will decide for themselves whether or not they are part of the faith sector.

Amongst the diversity of faith charities I highlighted five key attributes that I feel help to define their distinctiveness, challenging their leaders and influencing their behaviours.


1. A higher calling?

All faiths exist to some extent because of a belief in something that extends beyond humanity – a higher authority. This should result in a clarity of core purpose that transcends time and individual preferences, but also encourages a view that the current generation are stewards of resources with a responsibility to protect the future and working towards the common good.


2. A long-term perspective

Although faith charities are not exempt from bending their purpose to chase funding and need to constantly reflect contemporary society, they can often demonstrate an independence of mind and constancy of purpose unaffected by the short-term – something needed right now more than ever! This can produce a tension, balancing faithfulness to the overriding calling with ensuring that strategies and activities align with the evolving needs of beneficiaries.


3. Great levels of personal commitment

The entire voluntary sector is driven by the commitment of individuals to serve others which can be particularly strong where someone is living out their faith, creating a sense of vocation that transcends other considerations. Faith brings a tremendous level of ownership and belonging that can influence outcomes (for good and bad!). It can particularly lead to a level of resilience in giving, even in challenging times.


4. Everyone is nice (but not always kind)

Irrespective of how successfully their actions sometimes demonstrate it, faiths tend to assert the intrinsic value of human life – leading to widespread humanitarian work and campaigning. One challenge can be an idealistic mindset, e.g. a culture where there is no honest communication with poorly performing staff – it may be ‘nice’ but isn’t honest or very honouring of those involved.


5. Faith isn’t cool

The policies of national and local government ebbs and flows about the extent to which faith charities are welcomed or encouraged. At one time it was common to establish specifically secular charities to circumvent rules prohibiting funding from reaching faith charities. Thankfully this has largely now reversed as the high level of work being done to serve local communities by faith charities has become more acknowledged.


Conclusion

Faith charities stand for a particular set of beliefs and convictions. This produces some distinctive characteristics, but overall they contribute an incredible amount to the charity sector in terms of time, funds and skills – often working faithfully in the background providing vital support at the heart of their communities with little fanfare.

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