Yesterday the Detroit News ran an op-ed in which I argue that corporate America should apply the fundamental insight behind President Bush’s faith-based initiative and open up their charitable giving to faith groups, since they “often provide more comprehensive and therefore often more effective assistance than purely secular or governmental counterparts.” A number of large corporate foundations either explicitly rule out donations to faith groups or refuse to contribute matching funds to them.

One of the advantages to liberalizing the corporate playing field is that such an effort would avoid potential church-state and constitutionality issues that have plagued the president’s plan. It could also potentially de-politicize charitable giving, which has become a hot topic especially in light of the recent charges levelled by David Kuo (who now blogs here, conveniently enough).

A brief side note: I had to stifle a laugh when I read Jim Wallis’ reaction to Kuo’s book. Wallis concludes that we must “beware of those who would manipulate genuine faith for partisan political purposes.” Amy Sullivan, a guest blogger on Wallis’ Beliefnet blog, posting at Faithful Democrats, writes that “at some point, being a person of good faith shouldn’t get you off the hook, it should require something of you.” Hello, pot? This is the kettle calling…

In any case, for those that are interested, after the jump I have posted a longer version of my commentary on faith groups and corporate giving, complete with links to relevant external sources.
“A Faith-Based Initiative for Corporate America”
By Jordan J. Ballor

Last year retail giant Wal-Mart broke records by contributing more than $245 million in cash and in-kind charitable donations. Warren Buffett, the billionaire CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, made global headlines when he gave $31 billion of his own fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These examples are just part of a larger trend in corporate America, as Forbes reports that total corporate giving increased 22.5 percent last year, reaching nearly $13.8 billion.

On closer inspection these numbers might not surprise us, since the increases in giving correspond to broader economic growth. But as the corporate world continues to contribute huge sums to the pursuit of social flourishing, it is worth examining just how and where these contributions are headed.

For decades the Capital Research Center (CRC) has examined trends in corporate giving along political lines. A study of giving by Fortune 100 companies in 2005 found that corporate contributions heavily favored left-leaning, liberal causes to right-leaning, conservative groups at a 14.5:1 ratio, or $59 million to $4 million respectively.

As illuminating as such research is, it doesn’t get at the fundamental relevant questions. For one thing, giving to groups that the CRC identified along political lines accounted for less than 5 percent of the total charitable giving by the Fortune 100 companies. Political giving is just a thin, albeit important, slice of corporate charity.

The chief concern with respect to corporate giving is moral rather than political. If the purpose of charitable giving is promotion of the common good and not simply political manipulation, the first questions for corporate America should focus on issues such as effectiveness, discernment, and accountability.

These are just the sort of issues that were the driving force behind President Bush’s ground-breaking creation of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (FCBI), which was intended to open up the sources of federal funding to the charitable work of various local and religious groups.

The argument is that by addressing the whole person, body and soul, religious groups provide more comprehensive and therefore very often more effective assistance than purely secular or governmental counterparts. Research published by the Acton Institute and based on a study of 564 privately funded human service programs has already shown that the faith-emphasis of a charitable group can be correlated to the types of assistance they tend to provide. For instance, groups with more explicit and mandatory faith-related elements are most likely to be substance-abuse programs. This makes sense as it is very often spiritual needs which drive people to the fleeting relief and transitory comfort of drugs.

The faith-based initiative has come under fire, however, because of concerns about the federal funding of explicitly religious activity. Many of the questions surrounding this relatively new government program have not yet been answered.

Regardless of the constitutional controversy surrounding the faith-based initiative, we can apply the core insight of the president’s program—that the charitable work done by religiously-grounded groups is vital, effective, and worthy of support—to other areas of charitable giving.

This is a message that corporate America needs to hear. After all, there is no constitutional barrier to private charitable giving to faith-based groups. But in 2005, Jim Towey, then-director of the FCBI, reported that 17 percent of the foundations of the largest fifty Fortune 500 companies “had published policies prohibiting giving to faith-based organizations.” Of the few others that explicitly mentioned faith-based groups, a majority of them discuss faith-based organizations only “to say they’re prohibited from matching employee’s contributions.”

This sort of explicit anti-faith bias is one that is in fundamental opposition to the indisputable historical record of the relationship between religion and charity. It’s also something that undermines what is so often a real commitment to social improvement on the part of the business world.

We don’t need a form of affirmative action for faith-based groups, giving preference to them simply because of their religious affiliation. But these groups should be allowed to freely and fairly compete with the rest of the non-profit world for charitable dollars.

So if corporate America is to get beyond the common public perception of its charitable giving as being calculated solely for maximum public relations effect, business foundations need to listen to this message: Don’t arbitrarily and unilaterally discriminate in your charitable giving against faith-based organizations. Keep the faith instead.

Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty (www.acton.org) in Grand Rapids, Mich.