Faith-based organisations and local economic impact

Daniel SingletonDaniel Singleton

This article is part of a series on faith-based organisations and local economic development.

The sheer number of people involved in religious congregations and charities means that the economic impact of faith in the UK must be highly significant. Yet for a number of reasons we seem reluctant to look systematically into the impact of religious communities on their local economies. While this hesitance might be partly explained by legitimate concerns about evaluating moral communities solely in economic terms, it ultimately limits the good work they do.

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As I happily agreed to look at this topic, a warning note was given to me by Public Spirit’s editors: ‘You might end up having to write an article about the fact that there has not been much research on faith and the local economy’. At the time I did not think much of the warning. Surely in view of the huge number of charities with religious articles registered with the Charity Commission, and the significant number of people who still say faith is an important part of their lives, there will be no doubt many scholarly pieces on faith and its economic impact?

Alas, I have not found it as easy as I thought it would be. In fact the issues on the impact of faith, faith communities and organisations seem to be the bane of my life. Just last week I was in discussion with Public Health England about the importance that faith organisations can play as a setting for public health interventions. The officials recognise that there should be much evidence for the significant impact of faith based activity, because of the sheer numbers involved. However, there is some reluctance to calculate this impact or to look at the potential that is dormant or otherwise in faith communities. Everyone is keen that evidence is produced, but is a little less enthusiastic about resourcing research to calculate impact and significance. So we are left with a supposition: X number of people adhere to faith, Y number of charities have religion in their charitable objects, the majority of charities are locally based and have local impact, thus we estimate this to be the local economic impact of faith.

Not very satisfactory is it?

Of course, what this doesn’t do is put forward a rationale for how one defines a ‘unit of faith’. Probably the most pragmatic way to define the impact of faith on the local economy is to look at the economic contribution and Social Return on Investment (SROI)[1] of faith-based organisations or places of worship (churches, mosques etc) and their direct impact on the local economy. After all, we are told that when a large industrial works closes (i.e., Fords or Portsmouth docks) it will have this direct effect on a number of people who will lose their jobs and this indirect effect on suppliers and retailers. There are ways to show direct economic contribution or loss. I for one never question these figures, but I suspect that there would be a close scrutiny of any similar stats in relation to faith-based organisations.

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“Having looked at civic contribution, we need a study related to economic impact of faith and the faithful in the UK.”

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Halal Butcher Golders_Green_Rd_-_geograph.org.uk_-_55324
A halal butcher in Golders Green, London: “Faith is an ‘industry’ – and the shops show the ‘indirect’ value of the faith communities”.

However, even if we can make some calculation in relation to the organisational units of faith, as measured by accounts submitted to Companies House and registered with the Charity Commission – that is, just looking at faith as a branch of the voluntary sector – this denies the potency of doctrine, belief, behaviour or even ‘group think’. Faith can act as a community of people, either as a cross faith, multi-faith or inter-faith context as supported by the Together in Service programme, which supports faith-based social action. Faith can also act collectively in a single-faith or single-congregation context (e.g., food banks or Street Pastors). But what I think maybe the most interesting yet the most difficult to quantify is the ‘faithful’ individual’s economic activity, which is determined or affected by their faith (be that beliefs, belonging or identity).

We know from research, most notably that of DEMOS,[2] that those who have faith are more likely to ‘do good’. That is to say, those who have an active faith are more likely to serve the community in civic duties than the rest of the population, in roles such as school governors, trustees and magistrates. Having looked at civic contribution, we need a study related to economic impact of faith and the faithful in the UK. For the moment I would settle for some examination of the collective impact of faith communities.

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“Apart from the strong showing that faith has put in behind fair trade, there is not much understanding of the Christian, Muslim or Sikh pound.”

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Where I live in East London there are two new mosques and a large new Ghanaian church. At certain times on a Friday and Sunday as people come to or from worship, the local shops do a roaring trade. In fact the shops themselves have changed to reflect not only the local communities but the influx of these worshipping communities. Opposite the Mosque is a halal butcher; on either side of the church there is an African takeaway and an international food-mart. Here faith is an ‘industry’ – and the shops show the ‘indirect’ value of the faith communities. A report by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB),[3] recently suggested that British Muslims ‘add enduring value to Britain’s prosperity.’ The global halal industry, for example, is worth $661 billion.

One of the reasons to look at the economic impact is because I feel that this impact is largely passive. Apart from the strong showing that faith has put in behind fair trade, there is not much understanding of the Christian, Muslim or Sikh pound. The communities themselves do not see themselves as economic units and thus don’t think to act like one. But the collective assets of faith communities, their organisational and congregational buying power, is huge. Sometimes this has been utilised to veto and bring pressure on particular companies, but how about, instead, harnessing this to effect real change in local communities? With the various opportunities appearing which bring the barrier down between public, private and community sectors, there are ways that the collective resources of faith communities and religious institutions can be accessed to serve the community at large. The opportunities around personalisation and personal budgets provide faith communities – which are already embedded in communities, and which often have a point of trust with older people – a good starting point for providing care services. Peepal Care has been working in this area, and championing a partnership with families so that those who love and care for family members are not disempowered, but enabled to make their resources and personal care capacity to go further by sharing the care burden.

Whilst on a panel chaired by Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol last year I caused a certain level of consternation with the following statement: ‘The real question remains: Is faith a sleeping giant or a sleeping hobbit?’ Tariq interrupted me at this point to point out a glaring inaccuracy in what I was saying. Seemingly a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he wanted to reject the premise that a hobbit was without power. Yet in many ways this is exactly what I mean.  As we examine the economic impact of faith we may rouse a sleeping giant of economic and civic power that performs in the way we would expect a giant to perform – grandly and with obvious effect. However, faith may be more hobbit-like: destined to do good and to conduct itself ultimately in a quiet and obscure way, saving the world from its destructive ways.

So I end as I began. I believe that faith has an effect on economics. It must do; it’s too pervasive not to. But despite its ubiquitous nature we are still in need of some effective studies into the impact of faith and the possibilities there are for faith and the local economies. The question remains; will anyone be brave enough to support the study?

Daniel Singleton is the National Executive Director of FaithAction, a network of Faith based and Community organisations serving their communities by delivering public services such as childcare, health and social care, housing and welfare to work. Through this role, he has become influential in a number of government departments often promoting highlighting the role for Faith based organisations in communities around the UK.


[1] Social Return on Investment (SROI) is a way to measure and account for the value organisations create with their work. There is a lot of interest in the SROI approach from funders, third sector organisations and from both public and private sectors. However, there is no uniform support of this approach or the robust evidence that SORI creates. See http://www.thesroinetwork.org/

[2] Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler (2012) Those Who Do God Do Good…”: Faithful Citizens (London: Demos) http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/faithfulcitizens

[3] MCB (2013) The Muslim Pound (London: MCB) http://www.mcb.org.uk/uploads/The%20Muslim%20Pound-FINAL.pdf

The image of Golders Green is included courtesy of Glyn Baker and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

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