Philanthropic Support for Faith-Based Schools – A case study

I have often said that when trustees of private foundations gather for their meetings, the exercise is akin to what happens in the halls of the U.S. Congress. Representatives from a variety of communities gather to make decisions about distributing funds to support nonprofits often lead by “community organizers” (a term recently ridiculed at the 2008 Republican convention more than once!). The trustees come to the meetings prepared with a board book, prepared by staff that includes written information on each grantee as well as web-based links to the organizations in question. They come to the meeting from their own perspectives and experiences which created an atmosphere charged with intellectual curiosity and a strong desire to be the best citizens with the funds the government allows them to steward.

Not too long ago, the trustees had a lengthy discussion about funding faith-based schools. It began with a question about the overt christo-centric language of one of the schools applying for a grant. As the discussion ensued, questions were raised as to whether the Foundation or (any other private foundation for that matter) should provide support to faith-based schools. The conversation then led to questions as to whether the foundation should fund any faith-based organization. The primary concern was whether these faith-based institutions force youngsters to adopt the religious faith of the teachers and/or administration. The trustees feared that requiring students to adopt the religion of the institutions takes away the freedom of a young person to question religion and ultimately to takes away their freedom to dissent. The questions are legitimate and clearly mirror conversations that take place nationally on some level. News reports from forced religious compliance in the Muslim world and narratives about the abuse of the Taliban in countries contributed to what all agreed was a legitimate intellectual concern.

This debate was critically import for in that any decision on the matter could not only affect decisions on grant requests from faith-based schools on the docket, but could potentially affect allocations of foundation dollars in other program areas. There was strong diversity of opinion on the matter, based primarily on the personal religious (or agnostic) experiences of the individuals on the board. I have found that issues of religion have the greatest potential of alienating some trustees from others because the positions are so deep. Any misstep had the potential to result in some trustees forfeiting their future involvement with the foundation.

Despite the dangers, one of the great opportunities for a foundation is that it really is a place for members to engage in these intellectual challenges. It is a place where informed discussion can lead to shared learning from each other and, in the end, a more focused sense of mission for the foundation itself. As executive director, I feel it part of my job to provide them with the best sources of information to make sure the conversations is based in solid research and good data on the subject. I wrote the following thought piece in an effort to deepen the discussion and make sure that all members felt an opportunity to express their own thoughts. I share this as a lesson to other foundations and even legislators who may want added insight into the subject. These are my opinions and I therefore welcome public scrutiny, rebuttal or debate on the topic from those who may have different information.

With regard to the first question about whether a foundation can/or should give to any religious organization, I would like to suggest several books on the history of philanthropy in the United States. The first is Charity, Philanthropy and Civility in American History, published by Cambridge University Press in 2003. This is an excellent overview on the subject. The book points out the ambiguous nature of private philanthropy funding religiously based organizations.

It traces American philanthropy to its colonial origins stating that its roots are grounded in the British sense of philanthropy as “charity.” Throughout American history, charities were conducted by organizations of one religious organization or another. Some of the leading U.S. universities were established as religious institutions.

One chapter of the book traces the evolution of Roman Catholic schools in the United States. Late in the 19th century there was a dramatic increase in the number of parochial (parish-based) schools which were established to meet the crushing needs of the poor and working class immigrants. Communities of religious sisters were recruited to teach in these schools which marked a significant shift from what had been their primary focus – The Charity Hospitals. (Many of the leading hospitals in the United States were founded by orders of religious women). Today, an impressive number of foundations were established when the hospitals were sold to private health care companies, e.g. Sisters of Charity Foundation, St. Ann Foundation, St. Luke’s Foundation and many others across the U.S.  The religious women’s vocation in hospitals and schools was grounded in Vatican Encyclicals issued throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The encyclicals were strong denunciations against the abuses of human labor under early industrialized capitalism. These encyclicals called for a “preferential options for the poor” described as:

“Coming from Catholic social teaching, this concept expresses a special concern in distributive justice for poor and vulnerable persons. The “poor” includes but is not limited to those who are economically deprived. The principle is rooted in the biblical notion of justice, where God calls us to be advocates for the voiceless and the powerless among us (e.g., “the widows and the orphans”), and where right relationships are restored. Regardless of the reasons, those who are in any way deprived or who are particularly vulnerable have a special moral claim on the community (including its institutions and organizations, but particularly Catholic health care institutions, see Ethical and Religious Directives, n. 3). As a matter of both justice and charity, structures and systems must be in place to address and meet their special needs, so that they might participate more fully in the common good and thereby flourish more fully as human persons.”

The preferential option for the poor does not discriminate for or against an individual’s religious belief, but instead address the philosophical all embracing concept of “humanity.” These documents were the founding documents for the labor movement in the early to mid 20th Century as well as United Nations Charter.

The authors trace the demographic shift in Catholic populations from the mid and late 20th century. As Catholics became wealthy and moved from the inner cities, more parochial schools were started in suburbs and religious orders of sisters were expected to continue providing their services for free. Starting in the mid-century more and more sisters questioned why they were expected to educate the children of wealthy Catholics in suburban communities and not opt to return to inner-city parishes where the preferential option for the poor could and should be practiced. In the late 20th century vocations to women’s religious communities dropped dramatically and the number of Catholic children in parochial schools diminished,

“Now, with rising costs and declining parish memberships, inner-city schools – in much higher proportions than suburban parish schools – had to close their doors. Ironically, in this period, applications for admission to inner-city schools from minority populations (most of them non-catholic) expanded greatly. Minority enrollments in parochial schools averaged about 20 percent nationally in 1984, but urban schools were reporting far higher proportions for example, 74 percent in Newark, 65 percent in Los Angeles, 58 percent in Detroit and 55 percent in New York.”

Much like formerly catholic charity hospitals, the schools our foundation has funded follow a similar evolution in staffing. Most of the schools we support have a religiously diverse teaching corps as well as a religiously diverse student body. Just as catholic charity hospitals do not admit patients based on religious preference, so too these inner-city faith schools do not admit students based on religious preference. The Roman-Catholic and Episcopal linked institutions state emphatically they are not in the business of converting people but instead, are focused on healing – one with physical, and the other in terms of the more complex issues of societal ills that poverty carries with it.

Undoubtedly, the Cristo Rey and Nativity modeled schools are grounded in Roman Catholic tradition. This tradition is the “preferential option for the poor” which is distinct from its evangelical mission. My research has shown this to be true of the Cristo Rey schools (Arrupe Prep, St. Martin de Porres, Nativity School, and Don Bosco) and the Epiphany School which is rooted in the Episcopal tradition. Each school not only respects the faith of the families that attend the school but invites students to explore the faiths of other religions even among students who attend the schools. (All the schools invite leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and other faiths to the schools as part of the curriculum). My interviews with the school heads and the teachers indicate their philosophy is less an exercise in forming faith than it is to introduce students to diversity of thinking and the cultural reality religion plays in the civic life of this United States. In short, these schools are Catholic in mission only, and that mission is the preferential option for the poor

Other faith-based schools in the foundation’s portfolio include the National Association of Street Schools and these are aligned with a fundamentalist tradition of evangelical Christians. NASS has a mission to work with the most challenged young people in society. Their students include former drug dealers, gang members, prostitutes, and youngsters that have been crushed by all dire poverty has dealt them. Their schools transform lives. The evidence is their in the increasing number of successful alumni. Their work has been validated with recognition from the White House and subsequent support from the likes of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. NASS has a more overtly religious curriculum than do the schools from more other traditions. A grant we made to support their accreditation process revealed a section requiring teaches to sign a pact whereby they agree to espouse the precepts of Jesus as one true savior. Without question these schools have a more focused message of “salvation” through a religious framework. Adopting Jesus as your personal savior is a key component to reforming a young person’s life. In some cases, the requirements for prayer are explicit but not found in the other schools discussed. As trustees discussed the grant request to NASS and one of its affiliated schools – the Denver Street School, they made the grant understanding that these schools provided hope to individuals and families which in turn, gave them incentive to pursue academics and strive for a better life. In the cloying economic and social oppression these people live, hope is a critical element for survival. It provides a horizon to the future that otherwise is not there. .

Staff has recommend support for all the schools I described with the understanding that they met the three core goals of the Nord Family Foundation’s mission – to build community – to support projects that bring opportunity to the disadvantaged – strengthen the bond of families – and improve the qualities of people’s lives. After lengthy debate that covered issues of hope, economic despair, and a genuine attempt at putting themselves in the mindset of those the funds were meant to support, the trustees approved the grants in question.

The discussion lead to the larger issue as to whether this foundation should follow the Constitutional separation of church and state when making grants to nonprofit organizations. Staff was put in the position of arguing that foundations were created to be a conduit of a different form of public monies to ensure that faith-based along with a variety of other organizations would be able to thrive with public support.

Federal and State laws governing foundations have never made that requirement of private foundations or charities. The founding documents of The Nord Family Foundation dated 1997 stated that the foundation dollars would not go to support churches. There was no mention of a prohibition against funding faith-based organizations.

A great book on this issue (and my second recommendation) is called,

Governing Nonprofit Organizations – Federal and State Law Regulation

By Marion R. Friemont-Smith

Belknap Press – Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA 2004

“Philanthropy in the United States has been claimed by one writer to be ‘our freest enterprise,’ and this phrase does emphasize what the dominant policy of the federal government and individual states toward charitable activities has been since colonial times.  With the exception of the restrictive legislation regarding charitable trusts that has been described, the enactment of legislation in a few states designed to protect heirs against complete or unreasoned disinheritance in favor of charity, and minor restrictions on the holdings of charitable corporations, the great body of legislation and court decisions has been directed toward the removal of restrictions on charitable funds and toward the grant of almost complete freedom of action to the managers and directors of these funds.”

In a recent interview in Philanthropy Magazine, Carl Schramm, President of the Ewing Marion Kauffmann Foundation in St. Louis and a respected leader in the field of philanthropy provided his thoughts on the role of foundations in a fee society. The following comment, is of particular relevance to the discussion any board might undertake relative to funding faith-based entities,” Because of its financial structure, and because it is above and apart from politics, it (a foundation) can go to places that aren’t necessarily popular. The record is very clear about what has been achieved historically. Foundations can explore the new frontiers and take risks that government can’t and private industry won’t.

With regard to use of deferred tax dollars, Schramm comments, “It is deceptively easy to think of “wealth reconstitution” and “institutional entrepreneurship” as strictly economic concepts. But democratic capitalism is a social, political, cultural and economic system – we can’t speak of “civil society” as something apart from this system.”

After more than four hours of debate and discussion, the trustees agreed to support the faith-based schools.  They also agreed that it made sense to continue support of faith-based entities but that staff should be mindful of any nonprofit that would coerce children or the vulnerable into belief in order to received assistance from a nonprofit.  So agencies were funded, people were served and the trustees adjourned leaving for their homes a little more enlightened having gone through the exericse.

As lawmakers in state and federal houses continue debate how much influence they feel need to legislate on private charities, it is my hope they make the time to sit in board meetings of any private foundation and watch the incredible exercise on civic debate that takes place. I would argue they have much to learn about the stewardship or public trust. Trustees who are often uncompensated for their service contribute valuable service to this country. That privilege should not be truncated or taken away.

One thought on “Philanthropic Support for Faith-Based Schools – A case study

  1. Matt

    John, this post is equal parts uplifting and informative. Frank and I were in a discussion about faith-based schools and he referenced this. I’m so glad he did. Thanks for producing such thoughtful writing.

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