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A Note on Financial Support for Interreligious Initiatives for Improving Societies

Why Interfaith Funding is So Tough, and an Alternative

Before focusing directly on my topic, a few words of context are important.

How do religious people from different traditions usually collaborate? First, they agree that they will not by law or force attempt to marginalize or eliminate each other. Second, they attempt to agree on certain humanitarian or ‘moral social-political’ projects that they will support in their own way — with their own funds and volunteers. Third, they sometimes agree to act jointly on some educational, humanitarian or moral social-political project by pooling funds and volunteers to impact change. Fourth, they sometimes agree to ethical procedures for missionary conversion work – from concords that stipulate ‘no lying’ or ‘no bribing’ to outright bans on evangelizing each other’s members or ‘sheep stealing.’

The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy adds a fifth possibility: a collaborative system for engaging in legitimate respectful contestation over doctrines, values, ideals, and purposes with the aim of persuading change of each other’s hearts and minds — a lively alternative to the fourth item above.

In this note I will only comment on raising money for joint collaborative efforts whereby an interreligious organization directs interreligious projects (item three above.) This organization usually has the blessing of the various religious communities involved but has no authority to act or speak for any of them beyond the bounds of the particular collaborative project. Interreligious collaboration should not immediately mean religions are forming a parliament or world council for ecumenical dialogue or creating agreement statements to be published, although some interreligious projects may indeed have those goals.

In 2000 I started the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, aiming to build trust without consensus between religious critics and rivals. I have an MBA from Harvard and calculated this practical cost/benefit analysis: It would save trillions in treasure to be able to engage in the perennial contestation of truth by respectful persuasion between honorable rivals instead of angry coercion between suspicious enemies. It would create a more peaceful social climate in which to engage our inevitable human conflicts with less acrimony and more cooperation. I concluded it would cost money to educate people, but the benefits to everyone would far outweigh the costs. All sectors, religious and secular, would happily chip in to save trillions. Wrong.

In ‘Interfaith Territory’

Now directly to my point regarding funding issues: When we have a helpful project that requires collaboration between two or more religious groups, we are in an institutional no-man’s-land called ‘the interfaith territory.’ At its historical roots this territory was a rendezvous for progressive believers that ‘celebrate diversity’ and think it silly that so many backward folks still espouse their tradition as the highest if not only way to salvation or enlightenment.

Thus, the predominant religious institutions and their advocates that give their time and money to their particular exclusive way of salvation are often not keen on supporting an interfaith initiative. It is ‘off purpose’ or it ‘taints the brand’ and wastes scarce time and material resources. Indeed, when traditional advocates mix it up with the interfaithies, they often feel unwelcome or out of place together. This is all crucial to funding problems for interreligious projects. The largest amounts of donations are not made to religion or good works in general. People give to A Particular Religion, and most of those who do, don’t want to dilute their resources into ‘interfaith’ work.

On the other hand, even though an interfaith project benefits the whole of society, the secular foundations and governments that provide funding for good causes have usually eschewed funding religious or interreligious projects run by people that have primary religious agendas. Thinking that religious groups would only give money or service where they can receive a return in converts or public reputation, collaboration would taint the pure motives of the secular donor.

To be sure, there has also been a bias against working with people who dabble in non-scientific superstitions and incite angry conflicts among their delusory factions. These issues are reciprocal; religious groups are often utterly dismissive of secularists who arrogantly refuse to see the light. Thus, there is both an institutional and interpersonal disassociation that often impedes useful secular-religious collaborations.

So interfaith work does not attract much money from either religious traditions or secular organizations. There are some exceptions. Religions for Peace has perhaps been the most successful multi-religious group that raises money from various religious groups for specific humanitarian aid projects. However, its funding support group seems to be more progressive than traditional. Of course the Red Cross (originally a Christian cross was implied) is the best example of a religiously inspired collaboration that has achieved general acceptance from all sides. But for the most part interreligious initiatives fall in between — without traditional sponsors in religious or secular communities.

In closing, I will say that the secular foundations (Ford and Rockefeller for example) are moving toward support for humanitarian projects that deal with religious conflicts. There is growing collaboration between religions also — the interfaith efforts are making a diplomatic and practical difference. The Mormons, for example, have been giving millions to the Catholic Relief Fund in cases where the latter is the best service delivery vehicle on the ground. There are no doubt other examples.

A New Funding Model

But in a broader view, I want to end by focusing on a new funding model now being tested in the general philanthropic world. The idea is that in many cases donations are not organically sustainable, and that a sustainable revenue stream ought to flow from the actual service provided by the non-profit. This leads to the formation of strategic partnerships between non-profits and profit-making entities — where the goals and purposes of each are compatible. For example, a profit-making health care or drug company might partner with the Red Cross on a one-time project in Africa.

The relationship can go much deeper as a permanent ownership sharing occurs. For instance a non-profit that desires to increase communication between adversaries might invest time and expertise in a business that aims to improve the quality of communication on the Internet. When that business becomes profitable, the non-profit entity would receive dividends as any normal investor in the company. (The dividends would not be taxable to the non-profit entity.)

After finding little traction in capitalizing the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy through donations, I decided to find a business that shared the goals of the foundation and needed the expertise we had developed in hosting the most difficult conversations. The result has been a new company, The World Table, LLC. Profit-oriented investors (not donors) fund the company with the aim of achieving a ‘double bottom line’ — doing well and doing good. The World Table aims to become the most respected conversation board on the Internet where real people can have respectful conversations about anything. (Go to www.theworldtable.org to see the proto-type in action.)

In coming years this sustainable model that combines business and philanthropy will become more popular as many donors become investors and non-profits use their expertise to gain a share of a profitable enterprise. Prestigious business schools are working on this model already. As long as the motives and goals of the partners are well aligned it will expand the effectiveness of everyone, but not without shaking up those that think real philanthropic work cannot be tainted by business practices and profit motives.