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Funding for the Interfaith Movement

Rev. Bud Heckman


There is the old story about the preacher who goes before his church’s capital campaign committee to say he has “good news” and “bad news” about the campaign situation. The good news, he reports, is that “the campaign has more than enough money to meets its objective!” The bad news, he reports to the committee, is that “all of the funds are still tied up in your possession.”

It’s a little funny. And sadly true. The real issue isn’t where the money is, but rather how you access it. What releases those funds, obviously, is communicating to the right people at the right time in the right way with the right opportunity to make a difference. There are more than enough resources to address the world’s problems, it’s just a matter of accessing, aligning, and releasing them.

For a couple of decades, I have had the pleasure of raising funds for interfaith organizations of several stripes, helping them receive gifts of up to seven figures. In recent years, I have had the privilege of helping guide philanthropic giving in order to advance the interfaith movement. Along the way, I have developed a few ideas about funding interfaith, which I share below. My allegiances are to our wider ideals, not any institution or approach, even though I will highlight a few.

The Funding Lag in Interfaith

Many people talk about “interfaith” becoming a movement. That is to say, those of us who advocate for interreligious cooperation think we are “building a movement,” creating a culture in which religious diversity might be fully appreciated and religiously motivated discrimination and violence might end. The assumption is that “interfaith” is akin to the social awareness movements of the last several decades, such as those for environmental, civil, women’s, or human rights.

For anything to be a movement on that scale, several things need to happen:

  1. Healthy, focused nonprofits must come into being and flourish.
  2. Academia must recognize and institutionalize it as a discipline.
  3. Mainstream culture must integrate it through various forms of discourse, such as writing, television, and movies.
  4. More importantly, ordinary people must see it as an enterprise worth funding.

That last point doesn’t come naturally; funding is fought for strategically. Substantive results do not happen coincidentally, but rather occur by design and grace.

Fundraising is work. Beautiful, surprising, and rewarding, albeit, but it is disciplined work. It begins with clearly outlining the aims and purposes of “interfaith” so that there is something worth funding.

The really good thing with “interfaith” as a movement is that the first three ‘requirements’ – nonprofits formalizing, academia legitimizing, and culture normalizing – are happening and, arguably, on a growth trajectory. “Finally!” I can hear you saying with me. Indeed, it is a blessing.

We haven’t quite yet found our equivalent of the “Cosby effect” for the culture normalizing, though. (Bill Cosby’s The Cosby Show mainstreamed healthy, humorous images of middle class Black family life for all Americans.) For a reality check and to mark just how far we have to go yet, remember the frenzy on social and regular media simply because Coca-Cola very briefly showed images of American Muslims in the overall mix of Americans portrayed in a 2014 patriotic Super Bowl ad.

Public Religion Research Institute quickly capitalized on the Super Bowl Ad controversy with a colorful, well-stylized graphic (see on the left) showing our rapidly growing diversity as Americans.

Unhappily though, generous funding for interfaith on the whole still isn’t where it needs to be for this to be a “movement.” The progress is meager, slower than what we need. Painfully so. And we feel it. But the onus for changing that situation is on us.


What You Say and How You Say It

Successful fundraising begins with arriving at more unified language, agreeing on and implementing some shared theories of change, and targeting persuadable audiences with information and messaging to help them overcome their barriers. In short, we need more of an orchestrated game plan.

A look at the drastic change in a relatively short period of time in the way Americans see gays, lesbians, and same sex marriage could be helpful. It did not happen by chance. The LGBTQ rights movement got its groove together by taking a page from the geo-targeting that they witnessed in the evolution of the game of micro-politics during the last few election cycles. It’s game plan seems to have been something like this:

  1. Commit to a multi-pronged, multi-staged, and multi-year effort;
  2. Network regularly the nodes of actors and allies;
  3. Conduct mid-America surveys and focus groups to figure out what people’s real barriers are;
  4. Use new language and unusual actors and test and refine messaging;
  5. Get better coordination and training for the whole movement on the messaging and media engagement; and
  6. Target both ally and persuadable audiences until a tipping point comes.

Muslim and interfaith ally organizations are already on to this and using it to beat back Islamophobia.

What We Are Up Against

Let’s pause to look at the other side of the coin – funding for those who are promoting division between faiths, rather than understanding – and we can see something of what we are up against and be reminded of exactly why our job is so important. Let’s take just one recent example in Islamophobia.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project at the University of California, Berkeley, building off of research earlier done by the Center for American Progress, assessed that “the inner core of the U.S.-based Islamophobia network enjoyed access to at least $119,662,719 in total revenue between 2008 and 2011.” The research even had outputs of clear diagrams of the connections and coordinated tactics. The Islamophobia industry is manufacturing a great deal of division with a relatively tight, well-integrated network of funders, self-described experts, and hatemongers. It is an obscene amount of funding given with the sole purpose of spreading misinformation and hate about just one tradition in one country.

We need to match and exceed the scale of those funding the enemies of interreligious cooperation and understanding. We need to do so with equal or greater urgency, given the scale of interreligious strife and the evils it spawns.

The good news is that we clearly can. The numbers and odds are in our favor.

Cultural Change

We are not just talking about where the money is.

We could talk about developing our skillsets, such as using collective impact or focusing our audiences so that we are giving better opportunities to engage individual contributors, high net-worth individuals, foundations, religious communities, governments, and other components of civil society.

We could talk about celebrating best practices and diverse funding methods like crowdfunding, fee-for-service, social entrepreneurship, leveraging, and partnerships to generate support.

We could follow the waves of funding interests that are part of our larger culture, like the trends that followed immigration, security, and identity interests in philanthropy for nearly a decade following 9/11.

Most all of these sorts of things will be necessary. But success is going to be situation dependent, based upon the strength of an organization’s leadership and the realities of their geography, disposition, and articulated impact. Yet focusing exclusively on that avoids some far more fundamental underlying issues. We can’t put new layers of paint on the same architecture. If we want to start a cultural change, we need to study some of our movement’s leading organizations and those in neighboring movements to celebrate and scale what works in reaching people. Moreover, we have to be willing to return to a clean drawing board and completely rethink how we are approaching what we do.

Signs of Hope

If you are an optimistic insider, you might be saying, “Wait just a second, Bud!” You can, no doubt, cite stellar counter examples of vibrant interfaith organizations with healthy financials. They give hope. I quickly think of InterFaith Ministries of Wichita, Interfaith Youth Core, and Religions for Peace, on the local, national, and global levels, as three vibrant counterpoints. There are many more.

I also think about the foundations now helping, such as El-Hibri Foundation, where I work, and GHR Foundation, and the governments supporting the idea, such as the U.S. with the White House of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and Saudi Arabia and partner countries with the generously funded KAICIID Dialogue Centre.

Arguably, there are many good examples of thriving interfaith organizations. We can learn from each of them. The organic, grassroots-led, asset-inventory approach of United Religions Initiative, surveyed by Bill Swing in this issue, offers another model altogether.

Still the vast majorities of interfaith organizations that I see, those that I very much respect for many reasons mind you, have either appreciable debt or live hand-to-mouth. Some giants in our field have closed their doors and others, quite frankly, probably should. Using the same techniques and doing the same activities over and over and expecting a different result is self-defeating.

What We Need

It is time that we got much more serious about what it takes to fund interfaith. How we talk about it, who we position it with, and what we ask for, in order to move the needle on religious pluralism.

Whether grassroots or grasstops, local or international, the more robust organizations in our movement are where they are because they…

  1. have been willing to change and constantly refine messaging and activities, even dropping some beloved things not essential to their increasingly concise mission;
  2. use accessible, uncomplicated language to describe and position the work that they are doing, seeing communication as integral to mission, not a tool of it;
  3. define clearly and simply who they are and precisely what they focus on, following a long-term strategy for how they will get there;
  4. enable ordinary people to understand what the problem is, how they are providing a solution to it and how the individual can see themselves as meaningfully involved;
  5. measure their impact and do storytelling that amplifies their efficacy; and
  6. are bold and assertive in attempting to acquire resources from multiple channels, even inventive or new ones, and are not afraid to “ask” and frequently thank.

Finally, let’s look at some of these messaging and strategy meta-issues through the lens of a few traditional fundraising axioms.

1. People give to people

Fundraising is about relationships. It is not just about the ideas or problems we put forward. Credible, believable, and articulate leaders, who spend 50 percent or more of their energies on activities that lead to friend-generation and fundraising, and organizations focused on relationships from a donor’s perspective, succeed. Keeping data that allows you to personalize and tailor your “asks” is essential.

Know your audiences and focus on them. Wear their shoes. See through their eyes. Listen. Keep records. Inform and involve.

2. People give to things they understand

We often fail at this as a movement. Very few people know what “interfaith” is, because it is a very plastic word. We need better articulation of our movement through the lenses of broader identity concerns, shared values, fairness, and human dignity. Despite the veritable importance of religion and spirituality in people’s lives, we still haven’t articulated in sufficient terms why it is important to know the religious or nonreligious “other,” or why positive dispositions to those who are different than us benefit us all and must become the norm.

This lack of definition is further obscured by the lack of mission focus in our work. We try to do 12 different things – all “nice” in themselves, mind you, but we don’t think how they fit together to make an impact. IFYC’s founder and leader Eboo Patel’s humble and honest interview in this issue brilliantly reveals his own aha! moment at IFYC on this count. Even when his was one of the most successful interfaith organizations, it surprisingly took a pause, questioned everything, and thoroughly refined its course. Cuts were deep, painful. They even said goodbye to most of their funders. (Gulp!) Today, they are stronger and more effective, though.

We ultimately fail, however, if we literally apply an approach like the Apostle Paul did to ministry, in executing our own organizational strategy: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (NIV, 1 Corinthians 9:22).

If I ask you to name successful organizations, you can probably say in one sentence what they do. Habitat for Humanity builds homes and hope for low income people. Heifer Project International provides livestock to families so that they can provide for themselves. Just two examples – you probably have your own.

You may say, “Wait, all those have products to deliver…,” while we are talking about ideas, feelings, behaviors, and relationships. Not houses or sheep. But the interfaith movement has some organizations with clear missions, relatable work, and measurable impacts. They deliver social cohesion, reduced conflict, and other social goods. Interfaith Youth Core, Interfaith Worker Justice, Tanenbaum Center for Interreligous Understanding, and the Interfaith Alliance are successful precisely because what they do is easy to understand and obviously needed. They didn’t start out of the box that way. It came over time with hard work.

Most organizations in the interfaith movement, however, still can only be described by saying five different unrelated things and even straining a bit to say it right. The uninformed observer is always left wondering, “What is the actual impact?” In other words, “You do lots of good things, but do they do any good?”

3. People give to authenticity and when a sense of urgency is articulated

We lack clarity, common language, and any urgency for our topic. We compete in a dense marketplace of ideas and needs for resources. We know what we are talking about and why it is urgent, but others need to be introduced, persuaded, and invited in terms they can actually hear and understand. The shape of the problem and the sense of urgency must be owned by them.

When we finally do open the potential funders’ hearts and minds with some imagination about our enterprise, we often lack the fortitude to actually make the fundraising “ask.” Or to do it with the personalization and specificity needed. We also fail to follow up.

We need to talk in terms about “interfaith” that make sense to people and are actually marketable. That is, we need interfaith to be seen as demonstrable action that transforms lives, not just talk or dialogue. The new language that we use might initially seem utterly foreign to our sensibilities, divorced from the nuanced ways that we have been educated to speak about our work. Words like multifaith, multireligious, interreligious, and interfaith might even need to disappear from our public conversations. We have to meet people where they are, if we are to make any impact. Our authenticityis at risk otherwise.

The Einhorn Family Charitable Trust (EFCT) is advancing 'interfaith' work, but it never calls it that, nor do scarcely any of its grantees. EFCT talks about “helping people to get along better” and supporting the development of “empathy” and other skills of social cooperation. EFCT carefully cultivates very select grantees that show integrity and promise and they invest very generously. They were behind some of the retooling of IFYC

4. People give when they are involved, recognized, and thanked

I cannot begin to tell you the number of people who have told me that they sent a grant proposal off to several foundations, but never heard or got anything. They find writing grants to be a big crap shoot. If their fundraising is so gunshot and unrelational, then I might agree.

My first question is, “Did you pick up the phone and talk to the foundation about your proposal, ask to meet with them, or trial-run your idea before submitting?” “Did you look at their 990’s, website, or Foundation Center profile?” “Uh, no, but…” comes the reply. Foundation officers, just like individual donors, need to feel involved. Statistics show that the majority of them will meet with you or least speak with you in advance of a submission. Most individual donors are more likely to contribute when they are involved in other ways and given many “touch points” with the cause.

Do your homework. Make concentrated asks, when you are likely to hear more “yes” than “no.” Recognize contributions. Thank promptly and more than once.


The interfaith cooperation movement needs to work on messaging, coordination, and strategy before it can move to another level in terms of funding. It can take a cue from some of its stronger organizations and from the successes that neighboring movements have had in reshaping public attitudes and knowledge.