The term faith-based organization is a term that emerged in the public lexicon during the welfare reform debates of the mid-1990s, but there is no consensus on what constitutes a faith-based organization. It can include organizations with historic ties to a religious entity but minimal or no current connections, such as the YMCA; organizations with extant religious ties that deliver secular services, such as Catholic Charities; small community-based organizations with links to a religious body whose services may or may not have religious content; local houses of worship; or any combination of the above characteristics. The term faith-based organization has no consistent or predictive meaning about the organizations connection to religion, and some organizations with religious roots or religious ties do not self-identify as faith based. In conducting research on faith-based organizations, a major challenge is determining how to define the term faith based.
As is common in many studies involving organizations with origins or current connections to religion, we asked survey respondents to self-identify as faith based. All 106 respondents that originally were drawn from the American Church List indicated that they were either a church or faith based, while 14 of the 96 respondents drawn from the NCCS database of 501(c)(3) organizations indicated that they were faith based. For purposes of analysis when comparing faith-based organizations and community-based (secular) nonprofits, we included the 14 self-identified faith-based organizations with the 106 congregations, resulting in a sample composed of 59 percent faith-based organizations and 41 percent secular nonprofits. Throughout the remainder of the report, we will use the term faith-based and community organizations (FBCOs) when referring to all respondents and call the comparison groups faith-based organizations and secular nonprofits.
By allowing respondents to self-identify as faith based, the analysis reflects the broadest definition of the term. The survey does not, however, measure the extent to which faith or religion plays a role in the delivery of services. The findings of this survey cannot be generalized to all faith-based groups because, given definitional and identification problems, there is no comprehensive list of faith-based organizations from which to draw a representative sample.