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Debra Kent
IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Last modified: Thursday, June 29, 2006

Study finds differences in how secular and faith-based charities operate

June 29, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Hoosier charities may have a common goal of addressing community needs, but state and federal initiatives need to take into account how these charities each achieve those goals based on whether the charity is a congregation, another faith-based organization or a secular charity, according to a new report, Indiana Nonprofits: A Portrait of Religious Nonprofits and Secular Charities.

The study finds that religious congregations and other faith-based organizations (as well as secular charities) show distinctive characteristics, challenges and capacities on almost every dimension examined. Given major initiatives at the federal and state level to involve faith-based organizations in the delivery of government-financed human services, these are important findings.

"Policymakers must be aware of these differences when designing initiatives meant to address religious organizations," said Kirsten Grønbjerg, a professor at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University and the Efroymson Chair in Philanthropy.

Kirsten Gronbjerg

Print-Quality Photo

For example, the study found that congregations are more likely to depend on volunteers and have a greater capacity to manage facilities than are faith-based or secular organizations. There are also important differences among religious denominations. Thus Catholic congregations appear to be larger and are more likely to have more formalized structures in place.

There are also major differences in how organizations use the Internet and computer technology. "That's turning out to be important in organizations seeking collaborations and networking," Grønbjerg said. Congregations are less likely to have access to the Internet than secular charities and other faith-based organizations, which makes it more difficult for them to track policy changes and be accessible to outside clients.

Also among the findings:

  • Among religious and secular charities that provide health or human services, secular charities and other FBOs are more likely than congregations to serve only the general public rather than their own members and to target their services to low-income groups. However, secular charities are more likely than congregations or other FBOs to receive government contracts and to have completed a recent evaluation of program outcomes or impacts.
  • Secular charities that provide health or human services are more likely to report challenges in obtaining funding, with over two-thirds (70 percent) naming it as a major challenge.
  • Attracting clients and members is one of the most commonly reported challenges (54 percent). Congregations are particularly likely to find it challenging, regardless of whether or not they provide health or human services.
  • The median revenue for religious and charitable nonprofits in Indiana is $98,000, with no significant variation among congregations, other faith-based organizations or secular charities.

The report, from the IU Center on Philanthropy and School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), is part of the larger Indiana Nonprofits: Scope and Community Dimensions project begun in 1999 and directed by Grønbjerg. It is the seventh and final report in a series that has analyzed key aspects of the Indiana nonprofit sector, based on a survey of 2,206 nonprofits from across the state of Indiana. It can be accessed online at the following address:

This final report focuses on the 55 percent of Indiana nonprofits that are congregations, other-faith based organizations or secular charities and examines the ways in which these types of nonprofits differ in how they respond to community needs. Of the nonprofits examined in the report, 42 percent are secular charities, 39 percent are congregations and 19 percent are other faith-based organizations.

The IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, located on eight campuses, is committed to teaching, research and service in areas such as public and nonprofit management, public policy, environmental science, criminal justice, arts administration and health administration. The school maintains continuing relationships with a large number of public agencies at all levels of government; public and private hospitals and health organizations; and nonprofit organizations and corporations in the private sector. SPEA has earned national distinction for innovative educational programs that combine administrative, social, economic, financial and environmental disciplines.

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University is a leading academic center dedicated to increasing the understanding of philanthropy and improving its practice through research, teaching, public service and public affairs programs in philanthropy, fundraising and management of nonprofit organizations. The Center and the Philanthropic Studies faculty conduct basic and applied research about contemporary and historical issues in philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, the nonprofit sector, giving, fundraising, voluntary action, and public policy issues linked to philanthropic activity. A part of the IU School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, the center operates programs on the IUPUI and IU Bloomington campuses.