Innovations in Effective Compassion: Compendium of Research Papers. Presented at the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Conference on Research, Outcomes, and Evaluation. The Need for Research and Evaluation of the FBCI

07/01/2008

The underpinnings of the FBCI have broad appeal for policy makers and practitioners. However, more information is needed to better understand program implementation, best practices and challenges, and effective program components. The evaluation of faith-based and community-based programs and services is of paramount importance if the impact of the FBCI is to be understood and if faith-based organizations are to be fully integrated within a systematic framework of social service delivery (Zanis & Cnaan, 2006).

Several challenges common to evaluative research exist in investigating questions of effectiveness for FBCOs. For example, many of these organizations are small and have limited capacity for data collection. Among faith-based programs, there is often a lack of understanding of the role of faith in these programs, including whether and how faith may impact program outcomes (Fischer, 2004). In the extant faith-based outcomes research, the role of faith in faith-based services tends to be viewed as a contextual factor rather than as a specific program component that directly influences clients’ experiences (Ferguson, Wu, Spruijt-Metz, & Dryness, 2007). Also, it is imperative to conceptually and operationally define what is meant by faith-based and community-based organizations if an exploration of the effectiveness of these programs is going to be undertaken. One significant challenge in the design of comparative research studies is specifying a comparison group. There can be difficulties in undertaking random assignment at the organizational level and a risk of high attrition at the participant level. The organizational mission of many FBCOs is to offer services to anyone in need (Fagan, Horn, Edwards, Woods, & Caprara 2007), thus making it ethically unacceptable to refuse treatment to some applicants as required under a random assignment approach. Also, there may be higher attrition rates for those with lower levels of faith who are randomly assigned to a faith-intensive program (Fisher & Stelter, 2006).

Researchers have begun to chronicle the characteristics that appear to differentiate faith-based organizations from community-based organizations (Wuthnow, 2004). Faith-based organizations demonstrate by their policies, practices, or mission statements that they are motivated or guided by religious ideology or that they are directly connected with an organized faith community. Other characteristics that identify an organization as faith-based are the receipt of substantial support from a religious organization or the initiation by a religious institution (Cnaan & Milofsky, 1997; Wuthnow, 2000). In contrast, community-based organizations tend to have a governing structure and staff that involve members of the community. These organizations may be less likely to have a specific association with a religious organization or ideology. Both types of organizations tend to focus more on providing emergency services and less on the organizational capacity that is often required by major funding organizations, such as the government.

As increasing numbers of grants have been awarded to FBCOs and program implementation has progressed, several evaluations and research studies of these initiatives have been launched by universities and research organizations and funded by private organizations, foundations, and the government. Currently, there are several federally sponsored research evaluations that span a range of agencies and program areas. Some examples include the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative and Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative funded through the Department of Justice; the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program and the Latino Coalition Intermediary Grant Program Evaluation funded through the Department of Labor; and the Mentoring Children of Prisoners and Intermediary Model Benchmarking Study funded through the Department of Health and Human Services. Many of the large-scale evaluation studies are ongoing and it will take time to report findings that measure program effectiveness.

In addition to the government-sponsored evaluations of federally funded faith-based programs, there are several small-scale research projects that have been undertaken in the field. These research projects focused on the efforts of specific churches or locally funded community initiatives (Wood, 1997) as well as thought-provoking collaborative articles by researchers and clergy who discuss their program experiences (Boddie & Cnaan, 2001) and why they do or do not apply for funding (Pipes & Ebaugh, 2002). This emerging literature is critical to exploring the nuances of program delivery in-depth. For example, how does service delivery vary by different religious traditions, and how do these programs measure “faith” per se? Also, it will be important to understand the reasons why smaller organizations apply or do not apply for government funding.

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