How Investing in Religious Institutions Can Help Create Social Change

Written by: Donna Schaper

Date: November 05, 2015

Foundations looking to create systemic change make an expensive mistake when they ignore religious institutions as potential grantees. They miss an opportunity to fulfill their multiple and multiplying missions, one that exists in plain sight.

Religious institutions serve as an intermediary, providing glue between space and ideas. By intermediary, I mean what sociologist Peter Berger meant – they link the public and private sectors. They are rare sources of genuine and uncontrived interaction with community members, the very kinds foundations often say they are funding. They provide much needed space to gather for an astonishingly interesting array of artists, activists, recovering addicts and more. They mediate populations. They glue people to their values. They embody a community, sometimes of 1400 people, other times of 14. They gather and link. They often have enormous assets in real estate and endowments, about which they rarely know what to do.

Some grantmakers focused on social change do give grants to religious institutions, as this Michigan State University resource list shows. However, because most funders are “spiritual but not religious” (much like the wider population), they don’t always see religious institutions as the valuable intermediaries they are. This is no doubt propelled by examples of how closed-minded some religious institutions can be. But many others are open and democratic and hopeful, and they deserve a hand up; they are vital to the task of diminishing the closed-minded fear and hatemongering of those who distort religion. They especially need education and recognition as they manage their assets in a 21st century that is either scared by them or doesn’t “understand them.”

Foundations should not fund the parish itself. Congregations can and should pay their own way. But many places of worship fill multiple functions that go beyond religious services, often providing office and operating space for valuable nonprofit activities. Foundations should support the non-parochial work they do, which can include inexpensively renting space to day care centers, theaters, dance schools, “Stop Stop and Frisk” sign assemblies, fossil fuels suturing events or faith-based community organizing movement headquarters.

Religious institutions also can partner with foundations to achieve greater impact that relates to our shared goals for social change, regardless of whether congregations and program staff share a religious affiliation. Many congregations have “dead” or “inert” money about which they know not what to do. The same is true of the space-hosting value of their properties. My congregation in Miami invested one million dollars of its endowment, matched by a million each from Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Knight Foundation, to bring ACCION International to Miami. ACCION is now giving $12 million in loans per year and has been doing so for over a decade. Together, our organizations made an investment in our missions.

What is expensive? Waste. What is inexpensive? Asset appreciation and investment. Religious institutions and philanthropic organizations have a lot in common. Maybe we should get to know each other better.

Here are six things foundations can do to encourage such partnerships:

(1) Learn about religion from the ground up. Attend worship services in four faiths before you reject the next proposal from a religious institution. Realize that cultural competency includes religious competency. Lessen elitism by moving around in the places where people move around.

(2) If your foundation has an anti-religious policy exclusion in your guidelines, change it.

(3) Think frugally, the way congregations do. A little goes a long way. For example, a $3500 new screen projector could enhance activities for activists, artists, recovering addicts, schools, teachers, students and more, all at once. Activate long-term thinking and imagine how long a small capital gift for, say, a new boiler could assist other organizations you might want to help. With just a little bit of money to build material culture and real infrastructure, religious institutions especially those serving the marginalized, would be able to maintain physical spaces that could provide real value to multiple communities.

(4) Fund the study of development rights, such as for air rights banks and land rights banks, which keep sacred sites from knowing their rights (and selling their spaces, because they don’t have the capital to buy a new boiler).

(5) Become active over the long-term. John D. Rockefeller founded both Judson Memorial Church and The Riverside Church in New York City with a combination of lead gifts and thousands of small gifts. This created a century of leverage and activity that has created positive change for our congregations – the type of change most foundations would be proud to support.

Donna Schaper is senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York City.