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Generally speaking, press releases don’t make for the most gripping reading. But recently one came across my desk with this intriguing tagline: “Report Conflicts with Bush Policies on Faith-Based Initiatives.” The release was issued by the Charitable Choice Research Project, part of the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. From what I could gather from the release, here was evidence that faith-based initiatives are generally no more effective than secular social service programming and are, in fact, sometimes less effective. If true, this was news.

So, wanting more, I got the full report, titled “Charitable Choice: First Results from Three States.” And one of the first things I read was a disclaimer. The executive summary notes: “It would be a mistake to draw broad conclusions about Charitable Choice laws from this limited research project. Nevertheless, the findings to date raise issues that should be addressed in future efforts at implementation, and point to areas requiring further research.” Then, in the introduction, we’re told again that “it should be emphasized that this is an interim report.”

Strange. This limited and measured language never made it into the press release or, as far as I could tell, the numerous media reports it generated. Neither, curiously, did the actual title of the report. So what’s going on? As anyone who is remotely familiar with the discipline knows, social science research is an intensely political field of study. What we have here is an example of a limited, preliminary study pushed well beyond the conclusions it could support. Were politics behind it all?

The Charitable Choice project is funded by the Ford Foundation, the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, The Joyce Foundation, and the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy. Although claiming to be the first academic study comparing the efficacy of faith-based and secular providers of social services, the Charitable Choice study is certainly not the lone work on this important topic.

The Pew Foundation funded a large, ongoing research effort via the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, an initiative of the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York. The Hudson Institute has been asking tough efficacy questions since Charitable Choice emerged in the welfare reform legislation in 1996. The Heritage Foundation, using an expert trainer, has been working with directors of faith-based organizations since 2001 to facilitate program evaluation and set a standard to satisfy any potential supporter.

In By Their Bootstraps: The Lives of Twelve Gilded Age Social Entrepreneurs (Manhattan Institute, 2002), Martin Morse Wooster notes that social entrepreneurs individuals who employ private sector talents to meet pressing public problems – are an increasingly important part of the American landscape. Wooster profiles leading figures in the this growing movement, such as Millard Fuller of Habitat for Humanity and Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston’s Ten Point Coalition.

Recently, federal agencies and private foundations have underwritten technical assistance, conference trainings, and Web sites to provide unprecedented information, education, and high quality how-to’s on capacity issues such as governance, accountability, and systematic program evaluation. A newly launched website (Faith and Service Technical Education Network) is a substantive and impressive resource.

For centuries, faith communities have served the poor, drawing on a divine imperative: “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14.31). But the “faith factor” – in staff, volunteers, and supporters, in mission statements and privately supported programming – is no exemption from accountability. Faith communities should not expect that evaluation criteria applied to them be any less rigorous than those used for other nonprofits.

Return on investment measurements, therefore, should always be The Big Issue for nonprofits. Charitable needs are unlimited, whiles resources are limited. It is wise stewardship to invest in organizations that demonstrate that they are keeping a sharp eye on ROI. Effective compassion means that program activities are "on target" with the mission and that the mission enhances self-sufficiency rather than dependency. Honing strategy and improving effectiveness are not issues unique to faith-based organization; all nonprofits struggle with them.

Public and private funding sources are, justifiably, keenly interested in program outcomes, but the current discussion about outcomes seems to pit faith-based programming against secular programming – intentionally or not. This is misleading evaluation design.

Uniformity in nonprofit evaluation benchmarks is a difficult, and perhaps even an unwise, goal. That was the conclusion of John Sawhill and David Williamson in The McKinsey Quarterly (No. 2, 2001): “Given the diversity of the organizations in the nonprofit sector, no single measure of success and no generic set of indicators will work for all of them.”

Social science researchers generating reports on nonprofit effectiveness must be careful in their methods and transparent in their motives. Media stories containing misleading inferences and important omissions about research design and conclusions only harm the poor. Let’s try to keep the politics to a minimum and focus on the people who need our help.