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Mitzvah day highlights what faith-based charities have to offer

By Marini Thorne 20 November 2015

Life is tough for many parts of the charity sector, with cuts having significantly reduced their income in recent years and the prospect of more—via the autumn Spending Review—looming next week. But things are not all bad. Volunteering over the last five years has been gently rising, as recent research from the Charities Aid Foundation shows.

Charities of all stripes employ volunteers. For many organisations it is the lifeline of their existence, enabling them to provide services to needy individuals at a low cost and over a long period of time. Faith-based charities are no exception to this. Indeed it seems to us that the ability of faith-based charities to mobilise volunteers is exceptional.

The networks in which faith-based organisations operate provide an excellent means by which to rally volunteers. Some of the charities that have done this particularly effectively are those that rally on a single day. Take Mitzvah Day, for example, which is happening this Sunday. It’s an annual event dedicated to social action through volunteering, where individuals are encouraged to give their time—rather than their money—to charitable causes for a single day. Those taking part register with Mitzvah Day, which matches them to volunteer placements in local projects for the day. It usually sees around 37,000 people volunteering across the UK.

Mitzvah Day is rooted strongly in Jewish values of tikkun olum meaning ‘healing’, gemilut chasadim meaning ‘giving of loving kindness’, and tzedek which can mean righteousness or justice. Mitzvah itself has come to mean ‘good deed’ or ‘charitable act’. And Jewish organisations are not alone in organising large numbers of volunteers to focus on community building. The idea of sewa or ‘selfless service’ is central to Hindu and Sikh faith traditions. Sewa Day is a charity which also mobilises volunteers, encouraging them to undertake community action globally. In 2013, for example, they brought together 76,000 volunteers across 25 countries.

The structures of religious networks can also be vital in enabling faith-based organisations to recruit and maintain a supply of volunteers. The Cinnamon Network launched research into faith-based community action earlier this year, revealing that 4,440 local churches and faith groups were mobilising almost 140,000 volunteers a year and helping around 3.5 million beneficiaries across the UK. The collected savings this represented was around £3 billion for the local economy. This research is really only the start of us understanding the link between—and impact of—faith and volunteering in our communities.

So thanks to Mitzvah day, Sunday will see volunteers across the country helping at nursing homes, shopping for goods for a charity, redecorating a community space or baking for a local cause. These actions not only bring light relief to the service users and staff of particular charities, it also develops community bonds—linking people to organisations which help the needy in their community over the long, as well as the short term.

Volunteering in any context is something to be celebrated, but we must not forget to recognise the importance of faith-based organisations in catalysing this vital social action.

At NPC, we are currently researching how faith impacts upon a charity’s mission, its reach, its effectiveness, its capacity to collaborate, and how it delivers its services. We’re seeking to hear from faith based organisations of every size, religion and sector so do get in touch if you would like to learn more or contribute to our research: