United Way Mass Bay and the Faith & Action Initiative: Should Faith Be Funded?

John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard)



Case Study Sector


In March 1997, United Way of Massachusetts Bay (UWMB) contemplated a dramatically new approach to its grant-making. The Faith and Action (FAA) Initiative held the potential to direct United Way funds to religious organizations. For decades, UWMB had acted as a channel—via workplace-based charitable campaigns—for private dollars to reach social service agencies. UWMB evaluated agencies, and vouched for the probity and effectiveness of those it selected as “affiliates.” One common characteristic had distinguished UWMB and its affiliates: they were all considered secular. This allowed UWMB to assure donors that no contributions would go to promoting religion—considered a private matter outside the purview of social services. In contrast, the Faith and Action Initiative was envisioned as funding faith-based programs for youth precisely because of their spiritual impact on participants. Churches—especially black churches—in some hard-to-reach inner-city Boston neighborhoods were serving youth in a way that more traditional agencies were not. United Way leaders argued that for UWMB to refuse to fund these successful activist churches was in itself exclusionary. FAA would direct small grants to these religious organizations on a trial basis. No grant recipient would be allowed to proselytize. But each would be required to include spiritual transformation in its program as a condition of winning a grant. This case is designed to raise the issue of whether it was well-advised for UWMB—both as a matter of values and organizational capactiy—to move forward with the Faith and Action Initiative. In addition, it can be used to raise questions of evaluation technique: how can UWMB even measure “spiritual transformation” to know if its money is working? The case is meant to inspire insight into the way a nonprofit grants-making organization has to weigh the concerns of its various constituents, including donors, board members, grant recipients, staff, and the wider community.



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