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Confused Identity: What Makes Faith-Based Organisations Faith-Based?

Monday, 10 April 2017  | Wilma Gallet


Faith-based organisations delivering government-funded welfare services face complex challenges in remaining faithful to their religious heritage and traditions, while adopting the bureaucratic forms that enable them to compete with other organisations. The need to conform to government contract conditions and adhere to commonly accepted rules and practices within the sector place constraints on these organisations, dictating the way they are expected to behave. The standardisation of institutional practices becomes self-sustaining, driving faith-based organisations to become more like their secular counterparts and weakening their distinctive mission attributes and religious identity. This raises the question: what makes these organisations faith-based?

The challenge to faith-based welfare organisations

In Australia, Christian charities have provided services to support people in need since colonial times, long before any form of comprehensive government intervention. In recent years, however, the growth and professionalisation of the sector has resulted in religious organisations adapting the way in which they deliver welfare services. Many of the larger, religious welfare agencies now rely on professional staff as opposed to religiously-motivated individuals. In many instances, this has resulted in a loss of church influence, as separate agency structures are established to deliver these welfare services. Moreover, the professionalisation of welfare services and the increasing reliance on government funding has led to faith-based welfare services downplaying their religious connections. Some are removing references to religion from their name and logo and others have adopted secular mission statements, while most employ people who have no connection to the local congregation. Indeed, Australia’s oldest major charity, the Benevolent Society, has elided its Christian roots and now openly declares that it is an independent, non-religious, non-profit organisation.

Organisational Identity drift

An organisation’s identity should express those features that are central, enduring and distinctive. The unpinning ethos that shapes its identity should be evident to all participants. However, it is possible for an organisation’s identity to become confused and experience identity drift. If faith-based organisations lack clarity of purpose, they can easily be swayed by various factors, including a desire to grow the organisation for growth’s sake. They may, for example, start applying for a wide array of government funding contracts and programs that exert pressures on the organisation’s core purpose. The pressure to grow the organisation may have less to do with the desire to expand service capacity and more to do with simply ‘empire building’ and developing a reputation of being a large and influential organisation (T. Jeavons, When the Bottom Line is Faithfulness, 1994, 68).

There have been suggestions that this is occurring in church charities in Australia, particularly since the advent of market-type approaches supported or encouraged by government. Church welfare agencies have experienced extraordinary growth as a consequence of government funding, resulting in these organisations having much larger budgets than the church. Moreover, in order to manage the complex array of government-funded programs they are now responsible for delivering, many have consolidated their operations into national or state based entities headed by a CEO or central administrator. This has led diminishing links to their religious sponsors or parent denominations, resulting in mission drift.

One example of this is the St Laurence Community Services in Geelong, Victoria. Founded as an offshoot of the Anglican agency, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, St Laurence Community Services no longer makes any claim to maintaining its former Christian connection. Indeed, in order to further grow and consolidate the organisation’s work, St Laurence and another local secular not-for-profit organisation recently merged into one organisation, Karingal St Laurence Limited, resulting in an organisational budget of over $150 million with a workforce of over 2,400 employees.

The way faith-based organisations pursue funds and organisational growth has implications beyond the financial. If the priority in pursuing funding relates more to organisational survival than fulfilling the organisation’s founding vision and purpose, mission and identity drift are inevitable. The larger faith-based welfare organisations receive a significant amount of funding from government sources. Being reliant on government funding is likely to reduce the autonomy of faith-based organisations and ultimately affects their ability to retain their distinguishing features. This is largely because government contracts are becoming increasingly prescriptive and this, coupled with the pressures arising from the institutional field, results in sameness in organisational types.

Institutional field pressures

Institutional fields are comprised of organisations that share a common institutional life, purpose or structure. When organisations first commence operations, they display considerable diversity in the way they operate; however, as the institutional field becomes established, organisations are shaped by the rules and commonly accepted practices of the field. This results in convergence, and organisations start to operate in similar ways, a process that sociologists describe as institutional isomorphism.

There are three specific pressures that lead to isomorphic change within organisations. Coercive pressures occur as a result of organisations needing to conform to government mandates and influences from other powerful organisations, particularly when they are dependent on other organisations for resources, specifically financial resources. Mimetic pressures are evident during times of uncertainty and involve organisations imitating the practices of other organisations in the field. Normative pressures are associated with professionalisation and efforts at a sector level to develop common methods, conditions and codes that underpin their work, including in fields such as social work, education and human services.

Conforming to the rules and practices of their institutional and professional fields helps organisations gain success and legitimacy. However, compromises may have to be made, and this may in fact cause religious organisations to act in a way that is inconsistent with their doctrines and beliefs. This can ultimately lead to the attenuation of denominational ties, to the extent that faith-based organisations can no longer be regarded as religiously distinctive. When one part of the church changes or mimics its secular counterparts, this can result in disagreement or confusion regarding core mission within the broader church. This, in turn, can exacerbate the division between congregational members and the professional staff delivering the welfare services.

Faith-based welfare organisations that rely on government funding for survival increasingly find themselves in competition with other non-profit organisations and for-profit firms for government contracts. In these contracting environments, faith-based organisations may find it necessary to take on the characteristics of commercially-oriented organisations in order to win contracts. In addition, the prescriptive nature of government contracts means that organisations need to adjust the way they deliver services to match the requirements of government. Over time, the prophetic voice of church agencies delivering government-funded services is weakened and they begin to operate in similar ways to the government departments that they once challenged. As a consequence, they find it increasingly difficult to differentiate the goals of government from their own, their religious identity becomes constrained and their mission confused, resulting in a loss of faith-based attributes. If faith-based organisations are to avoid mission drift when accepting government funding, they need to continually revisit their raison d'être to ensure that there is synergy between the agenda and purposes of government and their church’s mission.

What makes faith-based organisations faith-based?

James Vanderwoerd’s US study explored how two faith-based organisations managed conflicting secular and religious tensions (‘How Faith-Based Social Service Organisations Manage Secular Pressures Associated with Government Funding’, Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 2004, 14(3), 239-262). He concluded that both organisations had been able to withstand the pressures associated with government funding because of their deep commitment to their religious heritage: faith was considered a critical factor in all aspects of organisational life and was explicitly expressed in various organisational characteristics. Although the organisations respected the diverse religious or non-religious belief systems of their staff, board members and senior leaders were expected to adhere to religious values. Moreover, the leaders in these organisations saw their mission imperatives as having Divine inspiration - that is, as mandated by God and not by the organisational leaders - and therefore immutable.

1. God’s mission

If faith-based organisations do want to retain their Christian identity, they need to be clear about their distinctive mission and ensure that this is communicated to staff in a way that inspires and motivates them. It should convey to all staff members that the services provided are not delivered simply to support an external agenda, but rather in fulfilment of the church’s mission mandate to reach out to those in need, in keeping with Matthew 25 and in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.

2. Faithful leadership

Leadership plays a critical role in driving the mission, values and culture within organisations. Therefore, faith-based organisations need to ensure that the leaders of their welfare arms are fully committed to the organisation’s mission and have at the very least an understanding of the theology that compels Christian groups to reach out to those most in need.

3. Service as a living example of Gospel values

The Gospel values of compassion, justice, mercy, servanthood, grace, equality and concern for others should underpin service provision. The person being served needs to be the central focus of welfare services, based on a recognition that all people are created in the image of God and deserving of dignity and respect, and that faith-based service provision should be designed to meet the specific needs of each individual. This means going beyond the measures expressed in the government contract, if required, and sometimes ‘going the extra mile’.

4. Maintaining a prophetic voice

Advocacy is a key component of faith-based welfare services, not only on behalf of the individual, but also against the structural causes of poverty and disadvantage. Faith-based organisations need to be prepared to maintain their prophetic voice and denounce unjust government laws and policies, even if this means relinquishing government funding.


To ensure their own ethical and spiritual integrity, it is imperative that faith-based organisations develop strategies to uphold their distinctive mission and identity and avoid becoming little more than either an extension of government or a commercially focussed entity. In some instances, this may involve making a decision to withdraw from government contracts or deciding not to tender for specific contracts. This may be challenging for some of the larger faith-based welfare organisations that have developed significant infrastructure and workforces they wish to retain. However, unless the leaders of faith-based organisations maintain an intentional focus on their theological inheritance and founding purposes, they risk facing mission and identity drift.

Wilma Gallet was the founding CEO of The Salvation Army Employment Plus and is currently the Director of the Christian Research Association. Her PhD was on the impact of government funding on the mission, values and behaviour of church-related organisations. Wilma is the recipient of the 2017 Faith and Work Award.

This is a condensed version of Wilma’s article in the forthcoming (Winter) Zadok Perspectives on the theme ‘Church-related welfare agencies: maintaining mission and identity in an era of contracting’. Subscribe to Zadok Perspectives here to read the full version of this article and a collection of other columns, articles, reviews and papers.                                       


February 18, 2019, 10:59AM
As an employee of a faith-based organisation, serving under the leadership of non-Christians and alongside mostly non-Christians, I've seen this first-hand & totally agree.

I believe Church congregations need to avoid 'outsourcing' their role of reaching the poor & hungry to their affiliate organisations, who care little about reaching people with the Gospel.

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