In God We Trust? The Pros and Cons of Faith-Based Organizations

In recent years, faith-based aid organizations (FBOs) have been positively thriving. Many of these religiously affiliated groups have benefited from donations and volunteers. For example, the evangelical group World Vision recently reported a near tripling of their budget since 2000, while Catholic Relief Services pulled in $919 million in revenue this past year ($294 million coming from private donations), an agency record. Furthermore, a recent study showed that, based on participation, FBOs are the most popular organizations through which to volunteer. By combining increased funding with an ever-growing pool of human help, there’s no doubt that FBOs have greatly increased their influence and importance. However, some FBOs have also received criticisms regarding their activities. This blog examines the pros and cons of faith-based organizations.


Proponents claim that FBOs have some inherent advantages that many secular aid groups simply cannot match. For one, they often can draw upon large, similar-minded congregations for volunteers. FBOs have also been relatively immune to large decreases in funds during the recent recession, and have not been prone to the fluctuations that many secular organizations experienced; this allows them to better and more accurately plan future endeavors. Perhaps an FBO’s greatest benefit, though, lies in its effectiveness on the local level of aid giving and development. Faith-based aid groups have an easier time connecting with and gaining the trust of local religious groups, who are often at the core of a developing community. They can therefore hand over some responsibilities to people in an already established infrastructure, which can lead to lasting success. In essence, FBOs can better enact the bottom-up development process that most often leads to long-term prosperity in an initiative.

There are also a fair number of criticisms, however, that can sometimes plague FBOs. Many critics contend that faith-based groups mix philanthropy with proselytizing and claim that they care more about converting than giving. Additionally, they point out that religious morals could potentially get in the way of effective aid or treatment; for example, a Catholic organization could eschew distributing condoms based on moral grounds despite the fact that handing them out could be most beneficial to the people they are serving. Finally, some feel that a “halo effect” shields many FBOs: the actions of the groups are less scrutinized since they are supposedly “doing God’s work,” and the organizations are thus held less accountable for their results.

Such problems, however, seem to be few and far between, and a focus on such problems ignores the impactful work that most of these organizations are doing. At a recent panel held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, panelists discussed how such significant work happens through FBOs. Johns Hopkins’ professor Chris Beyrer detailed how, on a trip to Burma, he witnessed FBOs working through a system of monks in an effort to best distribute medicine. Another panelist, Kay Warren of Saddleback Church, told of the extensive training that Saddleback’s aid branch gave physicians in parts of Rwanda, setting up the capacity for a strong, long-lasting medical infrastructure.


Examples abound even past the success stories discussed at the CSIS panel. For instance, the FBO La Iglesia works through local churches in Mexico to provide aid and support for those most at risk for HIV/AIDs. Additionally, World Vision works in Sierra Leone to improve community life and offer anti-poverty solutions.

FBOs are obviously not perfect. The line between giving out aid and espousing religious beliefs can be blurry and sometimes even crossed. To simply focus on this, though, is a mistake; FBOs consistently do beneficial work, some of which, especially on the local level, is unmatched by secular organizations. No matter one’s thoughts on religion, it is hard to refute the immense good that the organizations can provide, as well as their effectiveness in doing so.


One thought on “In God We Trust? The Pros and Cons of Faith-Based Organizations

  1. mcmeeshi February 14, 2012 / 11:21 am

    Thanks for this article. I feel it is a fair assessment.

    I also want to share a resource for FBO’s, a book called When Helping Hurts ( One of the better resources I’ve seen for maximizing the good tendencies you mentioned above and minimizing the bad.

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