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Funding Global Interreligious Action

By J. Andreas Hipple


Donors are beginning to see the potential of interreligious approaches to increasing the efficacy of international development.  Large donors like USAID and UNICEF and private philanthropies are beginning to support multireligious collaboration to tackle complex social challenges like child marriage and malaria. Minnesota-based GHR Foundation, a private family foundation, has committed more than $2 million of its Global Development portfolio in 2014 to promoting interreligious action in Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, the United States, and other countries.

To capitalize on this new donor interest and global momentum, it is important for funders and interfaith leaders to understand the trends and practical implications. At GHR Foundation, our particular focus is on action. This directly links to the Foundation’s focus on entrepreneurial approaches and universal catholic values. More than dialogue, GHR focuses on supporting practical solutions in low-income countries and communities.  

The Trends & New Momentum

In terms donor momentum, three trends combine to provide the impetus for recent bilateral and multilateral funding to interreligious programs:

  • Acceptance that faith matters. The importance and influence of faith leaders is more widely accepted in the international development field than ever before, including by many funders in highly secular governments and agencies. Examples include the June 2012 Child Survival Call to Action convened by USAID, UNICEF, and the governments of India and Ethiopia, which presented a major multi-religious commitment as a central piece of the summit; Norway’s international development minister publicly declaring his country’s urgent need to “take God seriously;” and UN Population Fund’s strong engagement with faith leaders on challenging gender and family planning issues under the leadership of Thoraya Obaid.
  • Better evidence. Stronger evidence suggests that faith leaders, communities, and agencies can be practical and effective partners on issues including HIV prevention, child protection, and gender-based violence. While most of this evidence reflects assessments of single-faith projects, it nonetheless recognizes the value religious leaders and communities can play in mobilizing on-the-ground development.
  • Growing demand matched by better supply. Concerns over negative trends in interreligious relations in various countries – among them Central African Republic, Myanmar, and Nigeria – are growing even as national and local interreligious initiatives are becoming more strategic and bold in their aims. As outrage grew over Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association held its first Faith Summit for Children in Abuja on May 6, 2014, with support and participation from GHR Foundation and other bilateral and multilateral donors and the highest leadership of the country’s religious communities.

Action Steps for Donors

As large donors see opportunity in new collaborations with faith and interreligious actors, private funders with a commitment to interreligious goals are playing a catalytic role. Donors like GHR and El-Hibri Foundation, who actively support interreligious organizations, are working together to promote new conversations and collaboration.

These discussions are resulting in new imperatives for all donors, including the need to:

  • Advocate for greater funding for interreligious action. Funders listen and learn from other funders. GHR hopes to engage other donors by presenting tangible development outcomes and incorporating interreligious action into common grant applications. In a variety of funder affinity groups, GHR and others are highlighting interreligious action as a way of deepening the impact of efforts to effect social change.
  • Be a resource to funders on how to work with interreligious partners. The importance of faith-based interventions in public health and child survival are widely recognized and contributing to an improved evidence base, but recognizing the importance and knowing how to work with religious actors are two different things. Forming authentic and mutually productive connections with and among interreligious leaders requires listening, a tangible commitment of resources, and demonstrable progress toward achievable goals.

Philanthropies can also help interfaith organizations make themselves more fundable by:

Members of Kenya’s Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics meet to discuss approaches to reducing child marriage. – Photo: GHR Foundation

Members of Kenya’s Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics meet to discuss approaches to reducing child marriage. – Photo: GHR Foundation

  • Investing in solid evaluation. Funders love evidence of impact, and so should those who seek their support. There are many approaches to evaluation, and funders can collaborate with interfaith organizations to determine the most powerful evaluation approaches. Ultimately, evaluation matters when implementers and partners can reflect and learn from measurable results.
  • For example, GHR Foundation is funding a large-scale survey and assessment of the projects undertaken by more than 90 national and regional interreligious councils (IRCs) affiliated with Religions for Peace. IRCs have done massive work to reduce AIDS-related deaths in Africa, played key roles in transforming conflict to peace in Europe, and contributed to significant efforts to build stronger child-protection systems in Asia. What they have not done is gather evidence of this impact in any comprehensive and structured way – until now. This evidence will inform the case for scaling up interreligious action.
  • Support interreligious action on issues with broad donor appeal. By bringing interreligious groups into the frame on issues that they can uniquely influence, interfaith funders can help expose more donors to the possibility that interreligious action can make a positive contribution to their issues of interest. For example, the post-Millennium Development Goals discussion often returns to resilience. As global actors look at new ways to ensure communities are more prepared to address and combat hunger, climate change, disaster and other challenges, they would be wise to ensure faith leaders are at the nexus of locally driven strategies.
  • Support efforts to bring women and youth into leadership positions in interreligious organizations, networks, events, and projects. Experiences from other grantmaking initiatives suggest that sometimes just asking an open-ended question such as “How will you support the development of women’s and youth’s leadership in your project?” can help advance the field. A guide by GrantCraft called “Using Competitions and RFPs” urges donors to “[u]se the process of responding to the RFP [request for proposal] to build knowledge in a field or to strengthen organizations working in a particular area.” This logic holds for donors interested in encouraging creative efforts to support expanded leadership of interreligious programs and organizations.

The Implications for Interreligious Leaders

As donors look with greater frequency to faith groups for practical solutions, interreligious organizations and their proponents can reap the full benefit of the trends if they:

  • Develop a stronger evidence base. Interfaith organizations must go beyond arguing for their work based on the conviction of their ideas – or ideals – and the vague sense that what they do matters; they need to demonstrate rigorous evidence of their impact. That means developing specific and meaningful objectives and tracking against them. Interfaith groups must be willing to speak the donor language if they want the donor’s money.
  • Advance the role of women and youth in leadership. Anyone who has attended interfaith conferences, especially international forums, is instinctively aware of this ongoing challenge, which is a reflection of both prevailing religious hierarchies and broader cultural contexts worldwide. For international interfaith groups, this remains a challenge even as major global leaders such as GHR partner Religions for Peace and the United Religions Initiative pursue concerted efforts to support women and youth networks in their work. As donor interest in supporting women and girls has grown, this is often a stumbling block for potential collaboration.
  • Help donors navigate the religious world with sensitivity and respect. Many potential donors are wary of engagement due to a lack of familiarity with religious leaders, hierarchies, and multi-religious institutions; not least because they fear getting sucked into proselytization. Interreligious organizations and leaders can help donors overcome these challenges by active engagement as cultural brokers and guides.

Around the world donors are forming new, unlikely partnerships and looking for ways to do more with less. Those who have been engaged in interreligious action know that these approaches can cost-effectively increase the impact of development programs. Funders and interfaith leaders alike need to recognize the trends and understand the practical steps necessary to make the most of interreligious action. By making a clear case with solid evidence, engaging new voices, and drawing upon our collective strengths, we can strengthen communities while building respect and understanding. The more we can do that, the better off we all will be.