Why do U.S. faith-based organizations resist collaboration?

By Katelyn Zilke

Interorganizational collaboration is crucial to addressing complex social problems.  Faith-based nonprofits are an essential part of the social service landscape, often providing human services and providing connections to hard to reach populations. But previous research suggests they are less likely to collaborate than their secular counterparts. A new study from the Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact at Northwestern University sheds light on the challenges FBOs face in creating cross-sector partnerships.  

In particular, the research focused on two factors that differentiate faith-based organizations from their secular counterparts: operational capacity and religiosity. 

  1. Operational capacity describes using formal processes, setting goals, and analyzing outcomes. It is necessary for nonprofit collaboration and effectiveness.  However, FBOs tend to have less operational capacity than secular nonprofits. 
  2. Religiosity distinguishes FBOs from secular nonprofits. It influences FBO collaboration for two reasons.  First, an FBO’s religiosity may hinder collaboration because the nonprofit finds itself opposed to another organization’s practices.  Second, in nonprofits where staff must hold religious beliefs or engage in spiritual practices, leaders may be less likely to engage in partnerships with leaders of organizations that do not have the same beliefs.

Fu, Cooper, and Shumate surveyed 197 FBOs.  Of these organizations, 78.68% were Christian, consistent with the majority of U.S. FBOs.  Respondents were mostly executive directors, board presidents, or other leaders, such as founders or department directors.  The majority of respondents (roughly two-thirds) said they did not collaborate with businesses, and almost three-quarters of respondents said they did not collaborate with any government. In contrast, only 14% said they did not collaborate with nonprofits.  

Their findings suggest service religiosity and lower operational capacity may be barriers to collaborative activity and point to two key reasons.  First, FBOs with lower operational capacity collaborate less.  FBOs with higher operational capacity tended to collaborate more with nonprofit, business, and public organizations.  Second, service religiosity (i.e., where the service provided includes a spiritual practice) leads to less collaboration with government agencies. In contrast, staff religiosity, where staff must hold a specific religious belief or participate in spiritual practices, was associated with greater collaboration. 

What does this mean for your organization?  Staff and organizational religiosity are not a barrier to greater collaboration. Instead, FBO participation in cross-sector collaborative networks is hindered by their lack of operational capacity. FBOs that want to work with other organizations should invest in operational capacity building, such as developing documented procedures, regular reports, evaluation plans, and program evaluation. Funders who wish to increase collaboration with FBOs to invest in operational capacity-building together.  

Future policy discussions should focus on the role of religiosity in organizations, how it manifests within the organization, and how religious expression affects interorganizational partnerships.  Current U.S. policy supports government collaboration with FBOs that express faith in their programs and services. However, this research demonstrates that such faith expressions in service provision hamper cooperation with government agencies.  

Original article:

Fu, J. S., Cooper, K. R., & Shumate, M. (2020). Do U.S. Faith-Based Social Service Organizations Resist Collaboration? Examining the Role of Religiosity and Operational Capacity in Interorganizational Partnerships. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 0899764020952167. https://doi.org/10.1177/0899764020952167