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It’s time to consider the role of religious charities

By Jessica Nicholls 22 December 2014

Religion and charities have long come together. Many of the UK’s earliest charities were founded by religious groups, often taking the form of hospitals, schools, orphanages and poorhouses. Today, after a period of feeling pushed to the edges, we find religious charities are on the up. Numbering over 32,000, these organisations now constitute one in five of all charities in the UK—despite societal trends that might anticipate the reverse.

Britain is an increasingly secular society, with fewer people than ever professing a religious faith. The last Census saw a decline in people identifying with Christianity and a rise in those reporting to have no religion—though it’s important to note growth in the number of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, and in New Religious Movements.

Some explanations for the rise in religious charities present themselves more readily than others. With austerity making social need more apparent, it isn’t surprising that faith-based charities are stepping in where state support is slow or inadequate. Hence the expansion of the Trussell Trust, founded on Christian principles ten years ago and now distributing emergency food to nearly a million people a year (‘faith is absolutely central to what we do and how we go about it’, Trust Chairman Chris Mould told us).

But it also throws up much broader questions. We know they have government support: David Cameron recently said ‘we should be more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations’, alongside a sense that FBOs posses and embody key attributes for contributing to social cohesion. But some worry about the potential implications. The Lib Dems have called for safeguards to protect secularism and prevent proselytising in potentially sensitive areas like sexual health. Others have raised a concern that these organisations may, as a result, become instruments of the state.

So what does it all mean for their day-to-day operation, and what can they expect in the future? Religious organisations are hugely diverse—in their theologies, values and organisation. The spaces in which these organisations operate are varied too. They work within or outside of state relationships; comprise a variety of motivations both at an organisational and an individual level; and use the specific strengths and capabilities of their faith basis in different ways according to the needs of their projects.

As with almost everything, it’s a complex picture.

Our briefing paper Questions of faith sets out some of the key issues under six themes: purpose and focus; collaboration; impact; reach; delivery; and funding. Within these, we ask:

Where do faith-based charities bring unique strengths to the sector, and where do they achieve the greatest impact for their beneficiaries? Where does faith help charities, and where does it hinder? What, for example, might a faith-based charity achieve that a non-religious charity cannot—and why? Why have some faith-based charities kept—and publicly promote—their religious roots, while others have evolved in such a way that they are now faith-based in name only? How do changes in the mix of faiths in the UK alter the way faith-based charities work? In what ways do these groups differ from one other and how are they unique in the wider sector?

Our aim is to explore these in more detail over the coming year, so if you have any feedback, please get in touch at