IU research: Religious connections boost explosive global growth by small U.S. nonprofits

  • Dec. 13, 2016


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The American founder of an aid organization serving Kenya told an Indiana University researcher: “Whether or not you are a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew or whatever, I wanted it to be an open door for people to come and serve.”

That aid organization is an example of what IU researcher Allison Schnable has identified as a remarkable growth in “grassroots international non-governmental organizations," or GINGOs, which use the symbolic and material resources of religion but reject the label of “faith-based organization.”

The surge in the number of GINGOs is documented for the first time in Schnable’s research at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. More than 10,000 have been started since 1990.

“These grassroots groups based in the U.S. rely on volunteer labor and small contributions and have tiny budgets,” Schnable said. “They largely serve Africa and Asia, and their work is made possible by broad cell phone coverage, free email, cheap container shipping and international flights. Americans who care about development no longer have to give to the traditional charities like UNICEF or World Vision; they are starting their own.”

The evangelical Christian founder of the Kenyan GINGO (granted anonymity by Schnable) didn’t want to start a religious charity that would restrict volunteers to those of the same faith or claim a divine mandate for its work. But the group wanted to use the touchstones of religion -- praying, serving others, sharing God’s love -- to strengthen its ability to provide sanitation services in poor and isolated communities.

It and similar organizations take advantage of three kinds of religious resources:

  • Frames or ways of thinking and speaking about relief and development work that imbue it with legitimacy. For example, Schnable’s analysis of 6,575 websites found that 25 percent use the frame of Christian ministry to discuss their work. Whether providing computer training or clean water, the groups use phrases such as “God’s will” or “showing God’s love” to rationalize what they do.
  • Networks for recruiting donors and volunteers and for gaining entrée into aid-receiving communities. Schnable found 46 percent of the GINGOs had some sort of partnership with a religious congregation. For example, a Minnesota-based group that builds schools in Tanzania partnered with the global network of Lutheran churches. That gave the small group easier access to the expertise and resources needed to complete its projects.
  • Modes of action for turning good ideas into good deeds. Schnable found NGOs harnessing the religious practice of giving and used as an example a secular group in Dayton, Ohio. So Muslims can fulfill their obligation of zakat, the Ohio group allows donors to designate their contributions as zakat al-maal, alms given to the poor as a tax of one’s wealth, or zakat al-fitr, alms given on the holiday of Eid-al-fitr.

“Despite all these linkages, the grassroots groups are steadfastly not what we think of as religious organizations,” Schnable said. “Their quick growth should reshape our idea of the role of religion in development aid.”

The research findings were published by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in the article “What Religion Affords Grassroots NGOs: Frames, Networks, Modes of Action.”

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Allison Schnable

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