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The Comparative Effectiveness of Faith-Based Social Services

The Bush administration has been notably successful in creating a more welcoming policy environment for partnerships between government and religious organizations. Yet, a central question persists: how effective are faith-based social service groups compared to their secular counterparts?

It was the Bush administration’s first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, John DiIulio, who said: "[W]e do not yet know… whether America’s religious armies of compassion, local or national, large or small, measurably outperform their secular counterparts.” That remains true today.

Little is known about the role that "faith" plays in bringing about desired change in the lives of social service recipients. Does faith make a difference in the outcomes of services and if so, how, and for whom? There is almost no empirical research to support, or counter, the value of faith as a key to the delivery of effective social services, although answers to these central questions are beginning to emerge.

Much of the evidence from early research points to potential benefits from the involvement of faith-based service organizations -- called FBOs.

Following are links to studies in which the Roundtable has examined the effectiveness of faith-based social service providers in specific service areas.

A study of interim housing programs in Michigan found that FBOs were more likely to focus on values, treat their clients in a more comprehensive manner, and be perceived by their clients as more caring. Terms such as "loving," "nurturing," and "helping" were used to describe caseworkers in programs which scored high in faith integration. However, some recipients felt there had been too much intrusion in their personal lives, and the degree to which faith was involved tended to depend more on the front-line workers than it did on the programs themselves.

Faith-based contractors involved in a New York City program designed to help individuals who had lost their welfare benefits because of compliance problems had a difficult time making contact with the majority of the targeted group -- many of whom had moved or were living in shelters after losing their welfare benefits. But once a client was reached, the success rate among the FBO's was, on average, half-again higher than anticipated, while certain individual FBO programs scored two and one-half times better than expected.
 

A set of case studies comparing faith-based to secular providers of drug treatment programs in the Puget Sound area, homeless housing programs in the state of Michigan, and parenting programs in the state of Mississippi found that there were more similarities among service providers than the debate rhetoric would suggest, but some distinctive attributes as well. FBOs tended to serve more troubled clients and for longer periods. They - particularly groups with high levels of faith integration - tended to view their service as a moral endeavor, a process of client change involving ‘transformation from the inside out,’ rather than one of imparting technical skills.

The results were discussed at a 2003 Roundtable event. Click the following for an event transcript and PowerPoint presentation.
 

The Bush Administration’s Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) was, in the White House’s description, "developed to assess the effectiveness of federal programs and help inform management actions, budget requests, and legislative proposals directed at achieving results.” We sought to tap into available data sets to investigate the relative effectiveness of services provided by faith-based organizations. The most useful information for this purpose turned out to be from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and covers nursing homes and home health agencies. We were able to compare program characteristics and performance, based on multiple measures, of a large number of "church-related” (as CMS defines them), other nonprofit and government service providers located throughout the country. Substantial differences were found: church-related providers had fewer deficiencies and better patient outcomes on average than other forms of service providers.

A study now underway by the Rockefeller Institute’s Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy will provide unprecedented evidence on the comparative roles and performance of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in human service systems. By FBOs, we mean service providers that are directly and closely affiliated with religious institutions, or that incorporate religious elements in their operations or services. The study will enable policy makers to know, in considerable detail: the characteristics and capacities of FBOs and secular agencies of different types; whether these different kinds of organizations serve different people and provide different kinds of services; and how, after controlling for the effects of other influences, FBOs and secular agencies produce different outcomes for the people they serve. To achieve these goals, the study uses a combination of field research, client surveys, administrative data, and a clinical trial research design.

Other Roundtable Resources on the Effectiveness of FBOs include: