This is a guest post written by Tif Ho, the Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, a non-profit group that promotes secular volunteering and responsible charitable giving.
A significant portion of charities in the U.S. are run by faith-based groups. The presence of religion in charity work is especially evident in the aftermath of natural disasters. Every year, tens of thousands of volunteers, hailing from countless denominations and congregations, respond to natural disasters. An example of the presence that faith-based groups have is Southern Baptist volunteers during the recent hurricane season. After the mid-September landfall of Hurricane Sally, Southern Baptists in Pensacola, Florida deployed several teams of volunteers. These volunteers cleared debris left by the hurricane and prepared thousands of meals for people left without homes or power.
Since January 2019, the Southern Baptist denomination alone has responded to 136 disasters across the country. This denomination has approximately 70,000 volunteers who are trained in disaster relief, making it the largest volunteer disaster relief group amongst both faith-based and unaffiliated organizations. However, the Southern Baptists are by no means the only religious volunteer group in disaster response. In fact, the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster is a network of disaster relief nonprofits, a majority of which are faith-based. Of the 75 organizations in the network, 40 are religious charities.
Despite the outsized impact that faith-based groups have in charity — and in disaster relief, specifically — organized religion is quickly dwindling. White Christian denominations, especially, have had particular difficulty in maintaining the size of their congregations. These denominations have been unable to recruit enough new, younger members in order to replace aging constituents. Amongst white Protestants, membership has dropped 29.9% from 1990 to 2019. Other denominations, including Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans have also lost millions of members. As fewer individuals participate in organized religion, faith-based charity has become difficult to sustain.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further put a dent in faith-based charity. Religiously affiliated volunteers, many made vulnerable to the disease by age, have been less likely to congregate. These individuals were once plentiful at disaster relief sites, on the ground within 24 hours of an event. Disaster after disaster, they have looked after the well-being of those affected. Now, hampered by personal safety and health, faith-based volunteers are no longer able to provide relief for the destitute.
As organized religion has dwindled, faith-based groups are worried for the future. In the past, religiously affiliated volunteers gladly embraced their charity work. Hands-on volunteering provided them with spiritual fulfillment while benefiting the recipients of their efforts. Nonetheless, these volunteers understand that the decreasing membership and aging population of congregations create challenges. Eager to continue the benefits of their work, religious charities have begun to look for alternatives.
In response to their quickly decreasing numbers, faith-based organizations have started seeking volunteers from external sources. Volunteers from religious congregations have been quickly replaced by younger, less religious volunteers. Nicknamed “Nones” by many researchers, these volunteers are unaffiliated with any congregation or even denomination. While young, unaffiliated volunteers often lack the disaster response training of older, affiliated volunteers, they display a willingness to help and a readiness to show up whenever a disaster strikes. Unaffiliated volunteers’ ability to organize quickly and spontaneously is a boon to disaster-relief groups.
It is without a doubt that organized religion is on the decline. This decline threatens not only the sustainability, but also the very viability of faith-based charities and their disaster relief programs. As a failsafe, faith-based groups have started to incorporate and train unaffiliated volunteers. The result is that affiliated and unaffiliated volunteers work alongside each other in an unlikely partnership. And when faith-based charities inevitably collapse, it is these unaffiliated volunteers who will take their place, continuing their work.
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