January 28, 2021

Faith-Inspired Nonprofits Provide 40 Percent of Social Safety Net Spending but Can Still Be Overlooked by Donors, According to New Bridgespan Group Research

The study explores ways to multiply social impact by spurring dialogue and bridging divide in the social sector.

Boston, MA—January 28, 2021—A new study by The Bridgespan Group highlights the role that faith-inspired organizations play in providing a “social safety net” for the most vulnerable populations across the U.S. and sheds light on the disconnect between their importance to the safety net and the attention they receive from institutional and other private funders.

According to Bridgespan Partner and coauthor of the study, Jeri Eckhart Queenan, “While some funders, including government agencies, recognize faith-inspired organizations’ role in the safety net and in delivering social impact, that perspective has not translated into funding from the largest institutional philanthropies.”

Bridgespan’s research found that faith-inspired organizations account for 40 percent of social safety net spending—representing two out of every five dollars spent on safety net services across a sample of six representative U.S. cities. Further, it notes that the role of faith is often more important in communities that have been marginalized by, and left without access to, public institutions. This includes Black and Latinx communities as well as low-income people and rural America.

At the same time, according to the Bridgespan study, faith-inspired human-services nonprofits represent only 12 percent of safety net funding from the 15 largest private foundations, much less than the share of human services they provide. 

Devin Murphy, a Bridgespan partner and coauthor of this study said, “Large institutional philanthropy’s discomfort with faith-inspired nonprofits is often grounded in both searing personal experiences and a complicated historical relationship between faith traditions and many aspects of social justice. Though many faith traditions share a common concern with fighting poverty, some have also been a source of harm, trauma, and hardship. This complex history can make it hard for funders to discern which faith communities’ organizations are aligned with their equity values and impact objectives.”

Eckhart Queenan said that Bridgespan’s rigorous analysis revealed provocative insights about ways to multiply impact by bridging the divide between faith-inspired and secular portions of the sector. She is hoping that these findings will both spark a robust dialogue about the role of faith-inspired organizations in driving social change, and dispel myths that “leave impact on the table.” Those myths include:
  • Myth #1—Secularism is the dominant frame for America.

    • Reality: Despite recent declines in religious affiliation, nearly three out of every four Americans remain religiously affiliated—with communities of color actively engaging in their faith at higher rates (this according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts).
  • Myth #2—Faith-inspired organizations are a small portion of the social sector.

    • Reality: Data from Giving USA, The NonProfit Times, and Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, indicates that a third of the 50 largest nonprofits in the country have a faith orientation. Moreover, 40 percent of international nongovernmental organizations are faith-inspired.
  • Myth #3—Faith-inspired organizations are stodgy and lack innovation.

    • Reality: Bridgespan surfaced examples of faith-inspired organizations that are at the forefront of innovation in service delivery and the ability to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
“As we collectively look out on the crises of a global pandemic, our country’s racial reckoning, and increasing threats to democratic norms, it is all the more imperative that we look for ways to more deeply engage with the systems and institutions that motivate, convene, and establish a sense of community across the lives of millions in this country and billions of people abroad,” Eckhart Queenan said. Highlighting exemplary organizations at the intersection of faith and social impact, the study suggests that one way to start on this path is to build bridges across secular-anchored funding and faith-inspired impact by:
  • Viewing faith-inspired organizations as brokers of trust within communities.
  • Extending trust by initiating meaningful dialogue.
  • Complementing faith-inspired organizations by collaborating on solutions.
About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) is a global nonprofit organization that collaborates with mission-driven organizations, philanthropists and investors to break cycles of poverty and dramatically improve the quality of life for those in need. With a presence in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, and San Francisco, Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting, leadership development, philanthropy and nonprofit advising, impact investing strategy and diligence, and developing and sharing practical insights.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.