Engaging with faith groups

June 15, 2006

Attempts to get faith groups involved in the wider community can lead to cynicism among members, unless carefully handled, according to a new booklet published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), called 'Faith-based voluntary action'.

Moves by politicians and officials to encourage greater participation can backfire if, for instance, they are seen as claiming 'grass roots legitimacy' on the basis of a group's involvement, without actually engaging with its values and practices.

The 'Faith-based voluntary action' booklet was produced to accompany the first in a series of special seminars entitled 'Engaging Citizens', organised by the ESRC in collaboration with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

It summarises views from two experts - Professor Vivien Lowndes, of De Montfort University, and Greg Smith, until recently senior research fellow at the University of East London, and now with the Salvation Army in Preston.

The first of these seminars will be held at NCVO in London on June 15, when Campbell Robb, Director of Public Policy at NCVO, will respond to the publication's findings.

Campbell Robb said: "There is a lot of interest today in encouraging community involvement. It is clearly important to understand what motivates people to participate, what turns them off, and what contribution many, including those involved in faith groups, are already making to building a society that is inclusive and cohesive."

The booklet says it is widely recognised that there are many positive elements in the desire of government agencies - nationally, regionally and locally - to engage in partnership with faith-based organisations, and work for social cohesion across these communities.

However, Professor Lowndes warns that whilst faith groups' values and principles play a role in the regeneration of communities, sometimes tensions can arise between them and those responsible for making and carrying out policies. Groups may see an important role for 'prayer' or 'grace', to use Christian examples, in their community work.

Professor Lowndes said: "These are not cultural 'add-ons' but practices aimed at achieving specific ends. It is easy, in this context, to see how communication problems can arise between faith groups and secular policy-makers on the ground."

Her research found some cynicism among various faith groups where, for instance, policy-makers or practitioners claimed 'grass roots legitimacy' on the basis of people's involvement without actually engaging with their values and practices.

Similarly, Greg Smith, in research carried out in Preston on behalf of the University of East London, found that statutory agencies have great difficulty in relating to the diverse range of faith communities and their widely varied memberships.

Many Christian churches do not give community involvement or social care a high priority in their mission, and ordinary members of congregations in those that do, generally find it hard to think strategically, relate their spirituality or faith to wider policies, or see beyond the day-to-day needs of people in their immediate neighbourhoods.

There is little evidence, he says, to suggest that the majority of members or leaders of local mosques, gurdwaras, temples or synagogues are any more outwardly focused or strategically engaged than Christians. Drawing on recent research for the Home Office, Professor Lowndes explains three rationales for involvement of faith groups. These relate to people's motivation for participation, their capacity to engage, and the hoped for outcome.

In the booklet, she presents a 'diagnostic tool', devised with Rachael Chapman at De Montfort University which identifies the part faith groups can play in achieving the goals of civil renewal at four levels - communities, organisations, networks and leadership.
-end-
For further information or a copy of the booklet, contact:
Amanda Williams at the ESRC on 01793 413126; e-mail: amanda.williams@esrc.ac.uk
For further details only, contact: Professor Vivien Lowndes, on 0116 257 7786; e-mail: vlowndes@dmu.ac.uk
Or Greg Smith, on 01772 555425; e-mail: greg@maister-smith.fsnet.co.uk

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. 'Faith-based voluntary action' is published by the ESRC to accompany a seminar organised in collaboration with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) on June 15 at NCVO, London. Speakers are Professor Vivien Lowndes of De Montfort University, and Greg Smith, until recently at the University of East London, and now working with the Salvation Army in Preston. Campbell Robb, Director of Public Policy at NCVO will respond to the booklet's findings.

2. The event is part of the Public Policy Seminar series, which directly addresses key issues faced by ESRC's key stakeholders in government, politics, the media, and the private and voluntary sectors.

3. NCVO is the umbrella body for the voluntary sector in England. It works to support the voluntary sector and to create an environment in which voluntary organisations can flourish. It represents the views of the voluntary sector to policy makers and government and consults with the sector to inform our policy positions on issues generic to the sector. It also carries out in-depth research to promote a better understanding of the sector and its activities. NCVO has a growing membership of over 4,500 voluntary organisations, ranging from large national charities to small local community groups.

4. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC total expenditure in 2005/6 is £135 million. At any time, the ESRC supports more than 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

5. ESRC Society Today offers free access to a broad range of social science research and presents it in a way that makes it easy to navigate and saves users valuable time. As well as bringing together all ESRC-funded research (formerly accessible via the Regard website) and key online resources such as the Social Science Information Gateway and the UK Data Archive, non-ESRC resources are included, for example the Office for National Statistics. The portal provides access to early findings and research summaries, as well as full texts and original datasets through integrated search facilities. More at http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk

Economic & Social Research Council

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