Are faith-based organisations taking the place of the welfare state?

Faith-based organisations (FBOs) may be filling the gap left behind after the withdrawal of the welfare state. The FACIT research project is exploring the role of FBOs in matters of urban poverty and social exclusion with a view to making them more effective. Generally FBOs appear to reach vulnerable groups and have good relations with public authorities. If supported and monitored appropriately, their role could become more valuable, especially with the possible increasing levels of social exclusion due to the current economic crisis.

FBOs are organisations that provide welfare and that refer either directly or indirectly to religion or religious values. They have been growing in importance and diversity in Europe but have not yet received much attention. The FACIT project has investigated their role and opened up a new approach to welfare state research by exploring the ‘welfare society’, a term referring to welfare provided by the civil society (or NGOs) rather than by the state. Using literature reviews and interviews with key figures from public authorities and civil society, FACIT researchers have analysed the presence and the role of FBOs in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey and the UK.

The research indicates that the role of FBOs depends upon the current welfare regime and the importance of different religions in the country. In some countries, the state has extensive responsibility for welfare and provides it universally i.e. it is for everyone and not focused exclusively on the needs of the poor. Here FBOs are less present and this is particularly the case in Sweden. In comparison in Spain, the state has traditionally played a weaker role in welfare provision and the family has tended to provide support. Here FBOs are more common. Countries with a history of ‘pillarisation’, such as Belgium and the Netherlands also have many active FBOs.

In these countries society still tends to be vertically divided according to religion, and these ‘religious pillars’ have their own institutions, schools, media etc. Results therefore indicate that in some countries FBOs are replacing the welfare state and in others they appear to be supplementing it, depending on the welfare regime and religious context. Whichever the case, smaller FBOs in particular are providing help to some of the most vulnerable groups in society, such as the homeless, sex workers and people with drug dependency problems, who often slip through the net of the formal welfare system.

The variety of FBOs is complex. Some religious movements are more fundamentalist and some are more liberal. Most focus on community orientated activities. Catholic and Protestant FBOs tend to deliver help and services on a universal basis without discriminating against faith. Muslim FBOs tend to be concerned with integrating those from their own culture and upholding their traditions. In Turkey most FBOs have a charitable nature. Jewish FBOs also tend to assist only those in their community.

FBOs range from large professional umbrella organisations to smaller less formal groups. It is mainly the larger FBOs with dedicated fundraising resources that receive public funding. This also means they take more account of legislation and national policy. Some FBOs (such as Evangelical ones) refuse money in order to preserve their independence. Generally, relations between FBOs and public authorities are good and FBOs sometimes have an impact on the policy making process.

On the basis of their findings, the FACIT researchers made a number of recommendations:

  • Equal treatment of FBOs - New initiatives from FBOs do not always develop successfully because FBOs do not fulfil requirements for funding or tax relief, or they do not have the resources to undertake required administrative procedures and monitoring or evaluation. For example, in Germany FBOs catering for migrants, especially Islamic ones, are not entitled to the same legal status as their Christian counterparts, which means they do not benefit from tax exemptions.
  • Foster sustainability of FBOs - More and stronger FBOs are needed to deal with increasing social problems and larger numbers of marginalised groups. Public authorities should foster the sustainability of FBOs, if not by providing funding then by implementing supportive measures, such as allowing tax exemptions for donors.
  • Increase quality and professionalism - Evaluation of services and programmes of FBOs should become a structural feature. A good example of this occurring is in the UK where the well-established regulatory bodies ensure accountability and transparency of FBOs. In addition, training should be available to all religious groups, particularly in providing skills in bidding for contracts.
  • Strengthen support for voluntary work - As public funding lessens in the face of the current economic crisis, FBOs will rely more on voluntary work. Supporting frameworks for voluntary work should be strengthened. For example, by providing advice on volunteering and subsidising budgets for volunteer expenses.
  • Promote collaboration between faith groups - Local governments should attempt to represent different religions by bringing them together on different issues. This has been achieved in Sweden where both local governments and FBOs contribute to encouraging co-operation between different religions. In the UK, the ‘London Citizens’ project1 campaigns on shared social issues in neighbourhoods, and brings together different faith groups and labour, educational and community-based organisations. FBOs, on their part, should not reserve their buildings for religious aims but allow them to be used for activities that promote the needs of vulnerable people, irrespective of their religion.
  • Pay attention to groups with multiple deprivations - FBOs should be encouraged to consider the specific needs of elderly migrants, women and other vulnerable groups within their remit. In the Netherlands, this is encouraged by the Dutch Social Support Act2, which integrates people with limitations in society and there has been evidence of this in Turkey where a coalition has been established between different kinds of NGOs, for example between Islamist groups, NGOs campaigning for gay/lesbian rights and other groups.
  • Take spatial dimension into account - There is a patterning of social exclusion in certain urban areas and policy could help FBOs located in these places. For example, there are many Roma in certain Spanish regions and municipalities and some Catholic FBOs have worked towards integrating them into the community.

The economic crisis may well increase the number of people in poverty and excluded from society. Public funding to directly support these groups is likely to decease and, therefore, assisting FBOs to support them is a positive alternative - especially if FBOs are linked to social enterprises which contribute to sustainability, for example by creating jobs for people to make low-priced environmentally-friendly goods, such as recycled products.


1 See:

2 See:

FACIT – Faith-based organisations and exclusion in European cities (duration: 1/1/2008 – 31/12/2010). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 8 "Strategic activities", Research area 8.1 "Emerging needs". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Professor Jan Vranken,