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Transparency and Accountability Requirements for Religious Organizations

POLITICO reported in its December 3 edition that the Obama administration has poured millions into faith-based groups.

According to the report:

The story of the Obama administration’s large-scale spending on faith-based groups has been largely untold, perhaps because it cuts so sharply across the moment’s intensely partisan narrative. And in fact, when the stimulus was being debated in February 2009, conservatives attacked the bill as “anti-religious” in its spending guidelines.

But an analysis by POLITICO found that at least $140 million in stimulus money has gone to faith-based groups, the result of an unpublicized White House decision to spend government money, where legal, supporting religiously inspired nonprofit groups. And that decision was just the beginning.

In an aggressive attempt at outreach, federal agencies, in conference calls and online seminars, instructed faith-based groups on how to apply for the grants, and federal officials sometimes stepped in when the state officials who distribute the money were reluctant to spend it on groups associated with churches and other religious establishments.

POLITICO searched the federal database at for grants to faith-based groups and found a wide range of grants going to an array of denominations. Catholic groups, receiving about $90 million, were the largest; Protestant groups received at least $45 million; and Jewish groups received at least $6 million.

Groups associated with other faiths got substantially less. One Muslim charity in Chicago, the Inner City Muslim Action Network, received $277,000 for a green jobs program through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Much of the money went to fund the secular activities of religious institutions like schools and charitable organizations. Department of Education and Department of Agriculture grants went mostly to schools — Head Start programs, school lunch programs and other education-related programs.

Charities and social services organizations received funding through the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Justice. And the Department of Energy administered a number of energy-efficiency programs that some religious institutions qualified for.

POLITICO’s count excluded hospitals and universities with religious links, which received substantially more.

I’ll leave the analysis to others about whether this makes good public policy – or even good politics. What I would be interested in knowing is what kind of due diligence was undertaken before these contracts were awarded? And what requirements for transparency and accountability were required? The GuideStar database is notably thin when it comes to religious organizations. Since most religious organizations are not required to file Form 990, we rely primarily on voluntary disclosures from religious organizations. Several thousand organizations have stepped forward and provided GuideStar with information, particularly those engaged in social services and well-known brand names that solicit individual donations. But several hundred thousand religious organizations have not made voluntary disclosures.

With nearly a third of all charitable giving going to religious organizations, according to Giving USA, that’s a problem. Increasing the requirements for transparency and accountability from religious organizations that receive federal grant money seems like an easy – and important – step to take.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Policy Promoting Transparency Obama Administration