Innovations in Effective Compassion: Compendium of Research Papers. Presented at the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Conference on Research, Outcomes, and Evaluation. Summary of the Research Findings: Successes and Challenges

07/01/2008

Although the research papers included in this compendium examine a number of social programs and use a range of research methods, it is possible to identify some broad themes about the state of the FBCO research literature.

There are several examples of successful FBCI innovations. These include using intermediary models, building several dimensions of organizational capacity, and providing technical assistance in the areas of prisoner reentry, TANF, domestic violence services, asset building, and HIV/AIDS prevention. Addressing a range of social problems, FBCOs provide assistance in many areas, sometimes in small pockets, and other times as part of larger programs and initiatives.

Faith-based organizations tend to provide more emergency services than community-based organizations, in part because of more limited resources; however, the research presented here highlights the diversity of needs being served by both faith-based and secular organizations. Clients in need are likely to have multiple problems that can be addressed more effectively in a holistic manner and can benefit from an individualized approach to providing assistance and skills. These organizations also may be equipped to address these issues in ways that accommodate clients’ faith and culture and recognize family and community contexts. Thus, it is important for stakeholders to consider comprehensive and scaleable strategies.

Some of the papers in this compendium provide examples of intermediaries that effectively build FBCO capacity. Notably, using mini-grant programs among domestic violence service providers increased organizational capacity among organizations that were funded by the grants program; and, interestingly, capacity also increased among organizations that intermediaries worked with but were not funded by the grants program. This finding suggests that intermediaries can assist organizations in more ways than just providing access to funding. There also is evidence of the successful use of intermediaries in prisoner reentry programs that build organizational capacity and facilitate service delivery by leveraging a broad base of volunteers from congregations and community organizations to serve as mentors.

In addition, studying successful partnerships between TANF agencies and FBCOs has shown that FBCOs can provide individualized support services and mentoring to families to help achieve successful outcomes. An important finding is that faith-based providers and secular community-based organizations in urban and rural areas serve predominantly low-income populations. And this research emphasizes the importance of the location of FBCOs in terms of proximity to and ease of access for clients, but also in fostering comfort levels and trust.

Further, these studies point to the improving capacity of local faith-based and community-based providers and government agencies to undertake data collection and implementation of program interventions that include an extensive research component. For instance, the pilot research undertaken with the Gospel Rescue Missions (GRM), a large network of faith-based providers that had not previously participated in any major research project, allowed researchers to “open the black box of services” and attend meetings and interview staff to understand the organizations’ and clients’ faith orientations. GRM employees benefited from training in Web-based survey assessments and the collection of participants’ outcome data.

Similarly, the partnership highlighted between a faith-based organization and a university to implement a program intervention in rural Uganda, which included randomization of treatment at the school level, shows that research on these types of activities is starting to take root in other countries as well. FBCOs can act as a full research partner in these efforts.

State and local government agencies are also starting to collect more data and give researchers access to facilities, as demonstrated by the Florida Department of Corrections allowing researchers to analyze program participation data and to conduct participant interviews and observation within the prisons.

The FBCI promotes the provision of social services by both faith-based and community-based programs. An increasing number of research studies are using comparative research designs to examine whether there are differential effects of faith-based programs compared with secular programs, usual services, or no services. Several papers highlight the effects of FBCO programs on participants’ behavioral outcomes. The assessment of the most recent 18 studies that use comparative designs shows a mix of negative, null, and positive findings about the effects of faith-based services on outcomes. However, pooling the results of these studies, the mean effect of faith-based programs is statistically significant and positive, although small in magnitude. Pooling the studies by topic shows a statistically significant positive effect for welfare services that is of moderate effect size, and a smaller, though still positive effect for prisoner reentry programs.

One of the studies in this compendium found a positive effect of a program on reducing reincarceration, although it was not statistically significant. Another study found a significant treatment effect that included increasing educational aspirations and reducing risk behaviors. Although the findings in these two studies varied in their statistical significance, the program staff and clients in both programs found them to be worthwhile. While these studies represent some of the most rigorous designs in the literature, there are limitations to the findings because participants were not fully randomized into treatment and control groups, which can introduce bias into the estimates of program effects due to selection issues.

While there are clearly notable successes, the empirical research presented also points to challenges in program implementation and evaluation. One challenge is that while there are examples where organizational capacity increased, overall faith-based organizations generally have lower levels of organizational capacity than community-based organizations. This makes it difficult to offer a wide range of programs, hire staff, provide training to staff and volunteers, and participate in labor-intensive research projects. In addition, sometimes FBCO staff assume that they have the capacity to undertake research, but in reality they may not have a clear understanding of program evaluation, survey assessment, and data collection. One study noted that faith-based organizations also may in fact not have organizational barriers to participation to funding and service delivery, but may perceive that local political barriers are present. Moreover, the evolving case law and regulations about allowable activities for grantees receiving federal funding can be difficult to translate into the everyday practices of FBCOs, which may make these organizations initially wary of participating in or conducting research. While a significant amount of effort and progress has been made to increase the capacity of FBCOs to undertake research, and ongoing technical assistance and guidance has been provided that stresses the importance of research to potential and actual grantees, there are some important next steps to help guide ongoing research on the FBCI.

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