Better Off Without Them?

Elizabeth Simon

Report of a pilot study into the proportion of voluntary sector welfare projects organised by churches and other faiths.

With a response rate of 48% (‘secular’ voluntary sector) and 47% (faith), we found that faith organisations were running 40% of all voluntary sector welfare projects in the borough (35% by Christians and 5% by other faiths). This is at least two or three times the number that might be expected based on, for example, regular church attendance / membership in the borough. An additional 7% of secular projects had been founded by a faith organisation.

On average, the projects run by faith-based organisations were significantly smaller than the non faith-based:

- Their average number of users was 127 compared with 522 for the non-faith sector
- Their average expenditure was £34,272 compared to £133, 470 for the non-faith sector
- They relied much less on employed staff and more on volunteers to deliver the projects: average of 1 full-time and 1.3 part-time staff (faith) compared with 3.6 full-time and 2.5 part-time staff (non-faith).

The differences in size and staffing appear to be closely related to the amount of money the projects spent – perhaps had available to spend is more accurate, given one further key finding. While 56% of non faith organisations received some public funding for these community projects, only 36% of Christian and 25% of other faith organisations did. On average the non-faith voluntary sector organisations (we call them ‘secular’ in this report) received 38% of their project funding from the public sector, compared to the faith sector which received 16% (Christian) and 14% (other faiths) of funding per project from the public sector.

In March 2011 we sent a follow-up question only to respondents to ask what effect they expected the public expenditure cuts would have on their projects. This achieved a much lower response rate (10%). As might be expected from their lower dependence on public funding, none of the faith bodies expected to close and the majority did not expect to be affected by the cuts at all. By contrast, three of the voluntary sector bodies expected to close (11%) and fewer than one-third were unaffected.

Responding to the report, Philip Rosenberg, Director of the Faiths Forum for London, said:

“The content of this report challenges any contention that London’s communities are ‘better off without’ the contribution of local religious groups. Over 40% of welfare projects in Wandsworth are run by faith-based organisations, which may well be representative of the wider picture in London, where people of faith make up over 70% of the capital’s population.

“Of course, this 40% figure does not account for the wider role that religion plays in social action: individuals motivated by their faiths who are involved in ‘secular’ bodies; ‘secular’ organisations that were originally founded by religious communities; or the ‘secular’ charities that are housed in churches or other faith buildings.

“The report rightly challenges the public sector, which is often squeamish about funding faith-based organisations. Pound for pound, these organisations are delivering equal value to their ‘secular’ counterparts. Public bodies are often concerned that the faith sector provides exclusively only to people of a particular religion or denomination. This report contends with that in four ways:

“Firstly, many of the faith-based projects are accessible to the whole community. Secondly, even those that do provide exclusively to a group have beneficiaries from a section of society that ‘secular’ bodies find ‘hard to reach’, with specific cultural or religious needs. Thirdly, even those that cater only to their own may be saving the public purse through engaging with issues before they become a burden to the state. And finally, it is simply not true that ‘secular’ bodies are open to everyone. They might, for very good reasons, be focused on a specifically marginalised group, like people seeking asylum, or the Traveller community. Being focused is not always a bad thing!

“This report shows that faith providers are embedded in their local communities and responsive to local needs. They are funded primarily from their own grassroots support and draw heavily on volunteers, which makes them more sustainable and resilient to government funding cuts. However, with more government support, they may be able to increase their capacity for the benefit of all.

London Churches Group for Social Action
May 2013