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Leading new research at the intersection of religion and philanthropy ... and learning how to use it

Under Zeenat Rahman’s direction, the Aspen Institute Religion & Society Program’s work with what we then called the Religious Pluralism Funders Circle really was the catalyst for figuring out how religious pluralism might function in society. But the funders who participated in our programming weren’t just asking questions about religious pluralism, they also wanted to know who else was funding in the space, where, and how much.

To answer that question, I led the research on our side for a partnership with Elizabeth Lynn at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving and Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) to survey funders we knew had given in the space. In 2020, we published Powering Pluralism: Analyzing the Current Philanthropic Landscape. Results: institutional philanthropic giving to religion-related issues is very low, even when it’s a strategic priority. And some told us, “We don’t fund that,” even though their grants in the space were on their 990s.

chart showing areas funded by individual organization

These results pointed to a different problem: institutional funders are squeamish about anything related to religion. They either struggle to fund in the space, or worse, they don’t recognize it when they do. And that creates problems of its own. I started collecting anecdotes about this reality, piecing together why that’s the case and what the effects are on the system of religious pluralism (and all the other pro-social work it supports).

In short, the effects of funder squeamishness on religious pluralism a) hamper faith-based grantees doing pro-social work, b) skew faith-based grantees in the nonprofit sector either to hide their religiosity (common on the left) or double down on socially conservative positions (common on the right) to access institutional funding, and c) prevent the kinds of uncommon collaboration that can break us out of our partisan divides.

I worked to address this squeamishness in two ways: 1. I led new research to understand faith-based institutional giving, and 2. I created resources and conversations to change the culture of philanthropy.

1) With my research partner Brad R. Fulton, we investigated the scope and scale of faith-based foundations. In 2021, we published a paper identifying faith-based public foundations. And last year we identified private faith-based foundations too, showing that an astonishing 28% of all active private foundations are faith-based (this is unpublished research – reach out for more information!).

This finding makes it even more curious that the field of philanthropy is so squeamish about religion.

2) In 2021, I started creating additional resources to support the field of philanthropy in working in the field of religious pluralism. The first was this guide: But What if They Preach? A Guide for Funding Faith-Inspired Grantees with Boundaries and Integrity. I’ve also appeared at a number of philanthropy member association conferences, speaking about why and how funders might engage faith-based grantees. Finally, I started working with member associations directly, to break the taboo on religion so they can have needed, open conversations about funding in this space.

Funders can and should assess their own values and partner with faith-based grantees and in areas of pluralism where missions align. I’ve been incredibly excited in the last year to watch the growing interest in this space. I’m hopeful about these changes. Luckily, I'm not the only one working in this space, and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is also doing case-making around these issues. And New Pluralists has been diving in.

But much more needs to happen for the culture of philanthropy to become open to the possibilities here: philanthropy serving organizations need to host open conversations on the subject, funders themselves need to recognize when religion is already part of what they do, and there needs to be more research in the space to guide strategic investment.

There is incredible impact waiting to be unlocked in religious pluralism. Outcomes expected from a thriving religious pluralism are a stronger democracy; reduced polarization, hate crimes, and racism; and more equitable access to religious freedom.

But to get there, we will have delve into the hardest part of religious pluralism. That is not multifaith work where everyone agrees on the same social issues. No, the hardest part of the work has always been that most deeply burdened with hurt – religiously-inflected ideological difference.

I’ll write about that in my third and last post in this series, and why that's where I'll be focusing my work in the future.


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