Scaling Faith-Based Civic Engagement

Chris Crawford, The Democracy Fund

Faith In/And Democracy is a pilot funding and learning initiative led by PACE to explore the ways faith and faith communities can support democracy and civic life. The following post is a reflection by The Democracy Fund’s Chris Crawford who offers a funder’s perspective on this pilot funding initiative.

Photo Credit: Faith in Indiana

For the past few weeks, Office of Citizen has featured blog posts from members of the Faith In/And Democracy learning community. I’ve been inspired to learn alongside these leaders in person, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to read more about their important work. Today, I’d like to contribute some of what I have learned as a funder throughout our journey together.

At the very outset of this project, my first question was simple:

Is there even an appetite for faith-based civic engagement?

We quickly learned that the answer to this question is a resounding “Yes.”

By opening a Request for Proposals (RFP), we sought not only to find exciting projects to fund, but to get a sense of the size of the field dedicated to faith-based civic engagement. For our $300,000 fund, we received over $6.3 million of funding requests from over 130 organizations. We were able to fund just 4% of the projects that applied. Since digesting these numbers, I have been haunted by the fact that there are so many organizations searching for funding in this field, there is increasing need for foundations to step up and support them.

There is a diverse, robust field of Americans whose faith is guiding them to build bridges, promote pluralism, and strengthen our republic. These faith-based partners are focused on important issues like voter engagement, immigration, racial justice, and bridging religious differences. They are not engaging in interest-group politics for their individual faiths, they are serving the common good and strengthening our democracy. They need more resources to create change at the national and local level. Leveraging their work will require engagement from religious and nonreligious funders alike. Even as a nonreligious foundation, Democracy Fund sees working with religious partners as a special opportunity to promote pluralism, bridge divides, and create a democracy in which the American people come first.

Divisions Within Faith Traditions

Throughout this grant period, we have learned about some of the deep theological and political divides within faith communities — even in communities of the same creed. For example, while many Christians share the same values, some fear an expansive government and would prefer that churches and individuals take the lead in providing for the common good. Others believe that approach falls short, particularly for marginalized groups, and that the government has a responsibility to provide more for people in need. One of the keys to building stronger faith-based civic engagement is figuring out how to find common cause between these divergent views.

Chris Stackaruk from Neighborly Faith led a discussion of the New Testament passage about Zaccheus the Tax Collector. He explained the ways in which Christians with different perspectives would read the passage. This weaved into a larger point about the way these Christians show up in civil society: Often, conservative Christians are focused on personal salvation and a personal relationship with their God. They seek the common good through individually based acts of charity. By contrast, many liberal Christians focus more on justice as the very path to serve God and focus more on systemic solutions to serve people in need.

The Emotional Toll of Bridge-Building Work

Quan Williams, who served as the Civic Engagement Coordination for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, spoke powerfully about the emotional toll of interfaith work — particularly as a woman of color. For many of us in positions of power, we can enter challenging environments without much risk. We often overlook the emotional labor of showing up in difficult spaces. But our partners on the ground come face-to-face with bigotry and hatred that is aimed squarely at them. No one knows better than our friends in Charlottesville what it takes to try to build a stronger community in the face of forces that want to tear our communities apart. As a funder, I am interested in how our funding can support the whole person who is receiving our funds. How can we take care of those who are taking care of our communities?

Physical Spaces and Networks

We also learned about the way physical spaces and physical networks can change the way in which this work is carried out. Rabbi Michael Holzman led our group through a study of texts from the Old Testament alongside letters James Madison wrote about slavery. In doing so, he taught us how to build an environment that is conducive to difficult conversations. He even welcomed us to challenge his own ideas. Rabbi Michael put special care into fostering the physical environment that was conducive to having difficult conversations, and taught us all how to do the same.

A common theme among grantees and participants was how powerful congregations can be in creating impact. Multiple group members said that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship are able to sustain pluralistic work because their members have practice living in community among people who are different from them. The Wisconsin Council of Churches and other grantees told us that the physical presence of congregations has helped them to tap into rural communities. Individual houses of worship can serve as satellite locations for the important work that is conducted by these groups. Technology like Zoom and Skype offer low-cost ways to engage with entire congregations without needing to spend funds on travel.

Moving Forward Together

As we continue our work together, I am filled with gratitude for our co-funders at The Fetzer Institute, the team at PACE, and to all of the grantees who are doing valuable work to improve our country. In addition to the impact of their work, their willingness to enter into this learning community will help the broader field — and those of us who fund it — to scale our faith-based efforts to strengthen our democracy. As we enter into one of the most important election years of our lifetimes, that frankly has already shown it will be the most divisive and demoralizing, faith-based efforts will be key to holding our communities and our country together.

I mentioned the $6.3 million number at the beginning of this post- the number of funding requests we received. It’s clear there is a growing field of faith-based civic engagement that is waiting for our investments. That number represents an enormous opportunity to be part creative solutions to building stronger communities in our country. I invite religious and non-religious funders alike to join us in these efforts to fund this under-resourced field and to learn alongside these inspiring partners!

Chris Crawford of The Democracy Fund

Chris Crawford is a Program Associate at the Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation working to ensure that our political system is able to withstand new challenges and deliver on its promise to the American people. Focusing on principled leadership and effective governance, Chris supports the Governance Program in its mission to invest in approaches that help our elected leaders deliberate, negotiate, and serve the American people. Current grantees of the Governance Program include the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program, and the Faith & Politics Institute.

Prior to joining the Democracy Fund, Chris worked as a government affairs associate at Susan B. Anthony List. During the 2014 midterm elections, Chris was Assistant National Field Director for the organization’s Super PAC, leading a Get Out The Vote operation that made over 1 million live voter contacts across four states. Chris has worked on multiple campaigns at the local and federal level in his home state of New Hampshire.

Chris graduated from The George Washington University with a B.A. in Political Science.

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Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a…

Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE)

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Office of Citizen

Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) is a network of funders who believe our democracy will be healthier, more resilient, and productive with the office of citizen at its center. This diverse range of stories come from PACE members, partners, and guest contributors.