Government relations with faith-based non-profit social agencies in Alberta.

Author:Hiemstra, John L.

The push to privatize government services and generally retrench the welfare state has increased the Canadian governments' interest in a robust non-profit sector. In Alberta, as in many other provinces, governments have argued that churches and religious non-profit agencies should shoulder more responsibility for social and other services. (1) In the United States, President George Bush has set off widespread debate with his support for public funding for faith-based organizations. This debate has also stimulated heated discussions of the merits and demerits of faith-based non-profits in Canada. (2)

The increasing pressure on churches and religious non-profits to do more raises important questions about the nature and success of the current relationship between faith-based non-profits and governments. On the one hand, government has a legitimate concern to maintain public accountability for the actions of the non-profit agencies that it funds or otherwise engages. On the other hand, even the general nonprofit sector expresses fear that too close a relationship with government will lead to "agency dependency" and cause "a loss of distinctiveness and independence associated with the voluntary agency." (3) Faith-based non-profit agencies have the added concern that working closely with government may weaken or completely secularize their religious identity--the beliefs that some scholars suggest have motivated the founding and operation of these agencies. (4) Has the embrace of nonprofit agencies by Canadian governments become so powerful, or perhaps inappropriate, that it threatens to suffocate the very agencies that government hopes will "do more"? Virtually no academic literature deals with the Canadian religious non-profit sector and its relationship with government.

The central aim of this essay is to examine the effect of government policy on various types of institutional pluralism. In particular, it focuses on the types of non-profit "institutions" that have been created and are being run by diverse "religious communities." Does government policy leave non-profits, and in some eases their originating religious communities, the independence they need to maintain their identities and function according to their own motives and purposes? At the same time, does government have the room it needs to achieve its task of providing unpopular services, dispensing equitable public funding, and securing public accountability for the accessibility and quality of services?

This report pursues these questions by presenting the findings of a 1997 survey of faith-based non-profit social and health agencies in the Canadian province of Alberta. (5) Seventy-nine religious non-profit agencies responded to fifty-one questions about their work and relationship with Canadian governments. This report briefly sets out the composition of the religious non-profit social sector in Alberta and addresses how faith-based non-profits understand their beliefs influence their functioning. The report then analyzes the nature of the relationship between faith-based non-profits and the governments with which they deal. In particular, it explores the extent to which the identities and work of these agencies have been influenced by government regulations and funding.


A common method of categorizing social service agencies and organizations is by sponsorship, yielding the categories of government, commercial, and non-profit agencies. (6) The non-profit sector is often referred to as the "third" or "voluntary" sector. Non-profits are defined in The Social Work Dictionary as organizations "established to fulfill some social purpose other than monetary reward to financial backers." (7) Non-profits include everything from professional associations and arts groups to churches, research institutions, homeless shelters, and trade unions. This study is primarily concerned with the subset of non-profits that deliver social services, often called social welfare agencies.

A great deal of academic study has focused on "government agencies" during the recent welfare state era, but less attention has been given to the Canadian non-profit and commercial sectors. Salamon says "this pervasive partnership between government and the voluntary sector has attracted surprisingly little attention ... systematic assessments of the value and impact of the relationship have been virtually non-existent." (8)

This report focuses on one subcategory of the non-profit sector: "faith-based social service agencies." These agencies are principally dedicated to social services, but are created and run by religious or church communities. Another subcategory of the non-profit sector is "church-based social services" i.e., social services provided as secondary functions of institutions that are primarily dedicated to worship. Church-based social services merit further study, but are not the focus of this essay. (9)

Religious communities have historically played a key role in the creation of non-profit social services and continue to run agencies and provide high levels of financial and volunteer support. The 1997 National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating highlights the importance of religious factors for involvement in charitable giving and volunteering. Affiliation with a community of worship and frequency of attendance at religious services are "associated with both a heightened incidence of charitable giving and a higher amount of giving." (10) Religious organizations are first among the beneficiaries of individual charitable donations, while health and social service organizations are second and third respectively. It was also found that "people with strong religious ties volunteer at rates higher than the rest of the population." Voluntary action (on the part of people with and without strong religious ties) is not focused on religious agencies, but spread out over many types of organizations, with social service organizations being the highest at 21 percent of total volunteer hours. (11)

The general literature on non-profits offers conflicting insights on how a relationship with government may influence general non-profit agencies. In a comparative study of the United States, Holland, England and Israel, Ralph A. Kramer suggests that increased reliance on government funding does not necessarily lead to the diminished autonomy of non-profit agencies. (12) In later articles, he explores the question of autonomy further, suggesting that the dichotomy between government accountability and agency autonomy may in fact be false. (13) Lester M. Salamon also finds the relationship between government and non-profits has been a partnership that generally works well for both sides. (14) Susan A. Ostrander thinks the relationship between government and non-profits has been good enough for non-profits to be successfully integrated into the welfare state, provided they are seen as public but non-governmental agencies. (15)

Estelle James argues that agencies are losing their autonomy to governments. (16) James suggests that studies such as Kramer's overlook the real loss of agency autonomy because they focus too much on agency outputs rather than the inputs, (e.g. who an agency can and cannot hire). The real loss of autonomy occurs on the input side. None of the above studies, however, explicitly focus on the distinctive characteristics and challenges that "religious" non-profits experience. These unique challenges include maintaining the agency's religious identity, unique institutional features, and relationship with its religiously motivated donors and volunteers. Agency autonomy is of particular concern today as governments are looking to civil society once again to develop new social agencies to meet current needs, and as James notes in her international study of non-profits, "universally, religious groups are the major founders of non-profit service institutions." (17)

Literature on the Canadian non-profit sector also fails to deal adequately with the question of religious non-profits. (18) One common viewpoint in the social policy literature understands Canada to have been historically developing a welfare state in which "services come increasingly from the state." In this viewpoint, voluntary and faith-based agencies were seen as remnants of "an earlier philanthropic stage." (19)

Another viewpoint notes the two waves of government reliance on non-profits, and provides overviews of developments in the non-profit sector. For example, Jacqueline s. Ismeal suggests that an explosion of agencies occurred in the voluntary sector during the 1960s and 1970s when many provincial welfare states expanded through these agencies. (20) Jacqueline S. Ismeal and Yves Vaillancourt further suggest in their comparative study of privatization in Canadian provinces that since many governments are now privatizing (i.e. contracting out services to third parties), they are showing a preference for non-profit community-based programs. (21) Neither article, however, adequately explores the sources of, and sustaining power behind, these types of agencies. In particular, neither article mentions how these developments influenced the subcategory of "faith-based" non-profits. A recent study by Susan MacFarlane and Robert Roach, however, warns that there is a "real danger that non-profits that deliver services for the state will lose their unique identity and become a `shadow state.'" (22)

The comparative literature on non-profits also fails to deal adequately with "religious" non-profit agencies. In assessing this literature, Robert Wuthnow observes that "recent studies of the voluntary sector have often focused on secular non-profit organizations rather than paying attention to the full range of churches, synagogues, and parareligious associations that also make up this sector." (23) A few helpful studies do exist. Two American studies by F...

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