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The Struggle for Interfaith Funding, and Interfaith Career Opportunities

By Ruth Broyde Sharone


This is the final article in a series of three based on a conversation TIO Correspondent Ruth Broyde Sharone recently had with Professor Diana Eck, founder of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, former president of the American Academy of Religion, and academia’s preeminent student of religious pluralism in America. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. Ed.

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Fundraising in the interfaith community presents its own particular set of challenges, acknowledges Professor Diana Eck, who has been at the helm of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University for more than 20 years. Recognized as a modern-day almanac of the interfaith movement in America, the Pluralism Project offers free and downloadable resources and information about interfaith life, including intriguing case-studies of interfaith conflict. In spite of its longevity and academic star power, the Pluralism Project faces its own financial challenges. Professor Eck says she knows this from personal experience because she herself has had to raise the funds for the Pluralism Project with a limited staff.

Dorothy Austin (l.) and Karen Armstrong join Diana Eck at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project to talk about the practice of compassion. – Photo:  Vimeo

Dorothy Austin (l.) and Karen Armstrong join Diana Eck at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project to talk about the practice of compassion. – Photo: Vimeo

“The Harvard Development Office considers us ‘small fry’ and they’re not out there raising funds for us. So what we are facing in the academic context is certainly something that every interfaith enterprise also faces.” (She defines an interfaith enterprise as any group that is trying to promote anything to do with relationships in a multi-faith world.)

It is not, but it should be a cause that funders would be eager to promote and support, she emphasizes, “because it affects their city, their community, their churches, mosques and synagogues. And it also affects their corporate enterprises and the workplace. Every part of our society is affected by the multi-faith necessity,” she stresses.

Why has the interfaith community has not congealed like the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, or the gay and lesbian movement, in the sense of being a national organization? Professor Eck attributes that to the fact that interfaith activists have never advanced a national initiative with a national fundraising campaign.

“Interfaith energies are very local, and many are dependent upon member churches and member communities and therefore are significantly underfunded” she explains. On the other hand she points to movements in our own society, very much counter-interfaith, which are extremely well funded and have manifested very large budgets, such as powerful Islamophobic groups, or think-tanks and bloggers and the news media, she enumerates.

Why Interfaith Must Be Funded (and what makes it so difficult)

“There are whole movements in our society that have a vested interest in making us afraid of our neighbors, and we need to question that and understand why that is. For example, there are groups who want us to be afraid of Islam and afraid of Muslims,” Professor Eck says. She mentions The Center of American Progress which she says is funded by seven very substantial individuals and organizations who recently published a report entitled Fear Inc. The budget for just that one organization, she emphasizes, is probably many, many times the combined overall budget of all interfaith activities in the U.S.

“If I am interested in making us fear them and have an organization like Stop the Islamization of Europe or Stop the Islamization of America, I’m likely to attract more money to support people’s fears than to support people devoted to enabling positive relationships,” Professor Eck said with concern.

She agrees that there exists a certain juggernaut quality behind groups with a very strong social agenda, such as the gay and lesbian community lobbying for marriage equality. But simultaneously, there are also very well-funded initiatives operating to counter those movements. In the interfaith movement, however, she points out, we lack funders who are willing to put their wealth and their energies behind positive social change for the benefit of our multi-faith communities and society in general.

“While the interfaith movement may highlight the best of people reaching out and coming together in society, for some people that is just not newsworthy,” she says. “Individuals going out there trying to understand one another, working for interfaith worker justice or working for the study of pluralism in the academy – that is not a major headline issue,” she underscores. “Those are not things that catch the eye of the media, because there’s no violence, there’s no controversy; it doesn’t really bleed (referencing the famous quote describing contemporary journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads”).

“I wish they would include more of the good news,” she says wistfully. “I have to say, however, that one of the happy developments is that people like Eboo Patel and some organizations like the Interfaith Youth Core have done a pretty good job of fundraising and getting publicity. And that’s where it really needs to happen. Eboo’s vision is that working with the Interfaith Youth Core will one day be as important a “resume builder” for young people as being involved in Teach for America, for example. “And that is a vision that we all need to support!”

She also acknowledges that many people involved in the interfaith movement are not skilled in fundraising. “They’re there for the relationships and the kind of work they do at the local level. But it’s clear we need to get more effort out there, especially in the corporate world. This is one of our big challenges, because we don’t have the kind of corporate donors that other movements have attracted.

Why are the three big interfaith organizations—the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Religions for Peace, and United Religions Initiative (URI) always struggling for cash?

“I think the financial issue is a really big one even though we have seen the wonderful efforts of the Parliament, URI, and Religions for Peace, all national and international interfaith organizations, each with a different feel to it.

The Parliament has become almost a people’s parliament in different parts of the world, she elaborated. “In Chicago, at the beginning in 1993, it was very much representatives of the different religions: Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims. But by the time that Parliament took place in 2004 in Barcelona, it had a very different makeup. Many of the groups that showed up were interfaith groups from all parts of the world, from Israel, from southern France, from India, from parts of Africa, and from all over the U.S.

It included ecology groups as well and it was a different kind of energy that basically said “Wow, there’s a lot that’s happened in different parts of the world during the 11 years between Chicago and Barcelona.” Theoretically, she says, the Parliament is one organization that should be very well funded by the kinds of megabucks, international and corporate donors who would like to see themselves associated with that kind of energy.” But she concedes that that is not the case, and it troubles her.

Harvard Business School – Photo: Wikipedia

Harvard Business School – Photo: Wikipedia

Professor Eck says she often wonders if she should talk to the people she knows in the Business School at Harvard and say to them: What is it that would enable corporate sponsors to get behind a movement that is as crucial as this is to the corporate world? Knowing as we now know that we cannot run a transnational corporation today or even a national one without having to recognize that the workplace is complex and everyone needs to know a little more about each other, what mustwe do then to cultivate and fund ways of engagement that are positive?

Might the business school consider designing a course on how to fund skills and competence in the multi-faith community since those skills ultimately affect the bottom line?

“They wouldn’t design it as a course,” she answered. “They would most likely design it as a series of case studies that demonstrate in the classroom that interfaith competency is part of what it means to be in business these days.”

And what about the possibility of young people making interfaith activism a career in the future?

“One thing I’ve discovered from watching Harvard Divinity School grow over the years is that it has grown from being a Divinity School that had a Christian ministry degree into a multi-religious Divinity School in which some people are going into Christian ministry but other people may be thinking about work more widely. Some people are considering the Buddhist ministry program. And there are many people who are thinking about their vocation in interfaith terms, whether it is in chaplaincy in hospitals or in colleges. They are thinking about a chaplaincy that could be grounded in one particular religion or might really be about encouraging exploration and counseling from a variety of faith traditions.

Continuing her bird’s eye description of the development of interfaith study on the campus, Professor Eck said: “Colleges have participated in the changing demography of America over these years. They are no longer simply small private liberal arts colleges with a white chapel. They are no longer just nondenominational Protestant with a Hillel or a Newman Club: Catholic-Protestant-Jewish – the way things were in the 50s. All of our campuses today are multi-religious. So whatever our colleges do for chaplaincy needs also to happen in their relationships towards the religious communities on campus.

Of course, it is equally true they are now hiring interfaith officers for every major denomination in the Christian world and in the Jewish society of organizational structure as well, Professor Eck says. “They have to have people who are their interfaith officers, because they cannot simply function with people who know only about themselves. They have to have a whole staff that reaches out to other organizations.

“I think there are many people who approach a mid-career point who say ‘I would like to do something different with my life’ . . . whether it’s a doctor who comes to Harvard who wants to do enter the chaplaincy program or whether its people in the corporate world who want to change their lives and redirect some of their corporate enterprises.”

Whomever they might be, whatever their background or previous life experience, Professor Diana Eck is ready and eager to welcome all of them into the interfaith fold because, as she predicts, interfaith engagement from now on will become an integral part of the warp and woof of our lives.