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Foundations Working Together for Interreligious Cooperation

By Bud Heckman


A Catholic, a Muslim, and a Jew were sitting together in a meeting. Sounds like the start to a religious joke, right? Or, perhaps, it would be an ordinary interfaith dialogue. Either would be a fair guess, but this time it is actually the start to an interesting development – the recent gathering of representatives from among the many different foundations interested in interreligious cooperation.

In late September, the GHR Foundation, the El-Hibri Foundation, and the Jewish Funders Network collectively invited several dozen funders from across the foundation world­­­ – including funders from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East – to examine the development of a new funders’ affinity group focused on interfaith matters. It was a first-of-its-kind meeting. Two dozen funders attended the inaugural gathering. Two dozen more expressed great interest in the emerging group.

The funders were surveyed in advance of the meeting. Four out of five funders who participated or expressed an interest said that their foundation either has a primary focus on interreligious cooperation (35%) or was interested in it as a methodology with secondary benefits in their efforts to meet other, more primary, mission objectives (45%).

The group began to outline some of the things that might define how they would see their purpose of being together as they evolved. To begin with, they articulated an interest in taking time and care to learn about each other, to develop relationships thoughtfully, and to regularly examine alongside one another emerging insights for the field that might stimulate their philanthropic thinking.

To get them started on the latter, Robby Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) led the group in a review of critical data points relevant to interfaith work culled from recent American surveys. He also showcased the new American Values Atlas, which cross-compares religious data with other key data sets from a recent 50,000 person survey.

The funders wanted to know the same sorts of things most interfaith leaders want to know, like “who exactly are the ‘nones’ and ‘nons’ and why?” and “what does it mean that seventy percent of Americans have never met a Muslim and only a measly six percent have ever had a meaningful, regular relationship with one?” To see an overview of the data Jones shared, visit PRRI’s slideshow on the right: The Changing Religious Landscape: A Fresh Look at Inter-religious America.

What will this new interfaith funders’ affinity group become? What will it mean to the people and nonprofits who work to advance interreligious cooperation? It is far too early to tell. Most affinity groups take a couple of years to fully form and develop focused cooperative activity. But its very advent is a dream come true for the many who have long labored for the mainstreaming of religious pluralism. It represents hope and possibly enhanced funding. It is a key building block towards interfaith cooperation becoming a public movement on broad scale.