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Thinking through faith: more research needed

By Marini Thorne 30 March 2015

Recent inquiry into religious charities confirms need for more research

The Charity Commission’s relationship with faith-based organisations has been spotlighted in the press, with the discovery that 11%  of all commission inquiries are opened into religious charities. The ensuing debate over whether this focus is unfairly directed against Muslim charities—as think tank Claystone alleges and Commission chairman William Shawcross emphatically denies—seems to reflect broader interest in the role of religion in shaping a charity’s identity.

More recently still, the Charity Commission announced that charities may be required to specify religious objects in their annual returns. Even government seems to be taking a more proactive approach with its recently announced £400,000 programme for ‘strengthening faith institutions’.

This is all in the context of slightly contradictory societal trends; for we know that despite increasing secularisation, we’re seeing a staggering growth in the number of faith-based charities. Totaling almost 32,000, these organisations now represent one fifth of the sector.

Such attention poses questions about the role we want religious charities to play in our society. Does faith affect the end goals of charities, for example? Does it increase (or decrease) their reach? And what about impact? Are some sectors particularly reliant on faith-based charities? Will changing religious demographics affect provision in these areas? Will declining grant funding hit faith-based charities harder than others?

Our understanding across all of these areas remains relatively limited. We know faith is an important part of what motivates people to give, but we don’t know how it affects charities’ approach, their structure or their activities.

NPC is seeking to plug some of these gaps—to help the sector better anticipate the impact of some of these trends, and to guide individual charities themselves in formulating their strategy or in applying for funding.

Last year’s brief paper, Questions of faith, outlined the central issues we hope to explore. The response to this has already opened up a number of conversations with the sector, drawing in comments on the application of religious values, how faith affects recruitment, examples of inter-faith collaboration, and numerous other insights.

However, there is a great deal more to be done as we plan a detailed investigation using existing data, interviews and an extensive inter-faith survey over the coming year.

We are hoping to engage funders and charities from a range of faith backgrounds to ensure the fairness and breadth of perspectives it needs and deserves. If you are interested in getting involved in this conversation, please contact Tris Lumley, Head of Development, at