As a result of recent national events, the public might be convinced there is a whole new type of organization about to enter the landscape in America, something called a “faith-based” organization. In fact, the kind of organization this seems to describe—groups whose members share a set of religious convictions, doing work they believe is of service to others because of those convictions, perhaps in a distinctive manner shaped by those convictions—have been in existence and doing this kind of work since the origins of the nation.

So far as I can see there is not yet any wide agreement about what set of characteristics define the entities that should be described as “faith-based.” Which organizations legitimately belong to this club and which do not is hard to say. This problem particularly bothers some who want to give legitimacy (and government money) only to those faith-based organizations whose faith is like their own. Yet beyond matters of sectarian politics, this problem highlights some broader questions raised by the linguistic construction itself. It is those questions I wish to examine here.

I have argued in more than a few lectures and sermons that all people have “faith.” The vital and really interesting questions are: “What does one have faith in; and is that object of faith deserving of it?”

I believe the same can be said about organizations. Most all of them operate on the basis of believing and trusting in something as being ultimately true and ultimately valuable. (This could be taken as an operating definition of “faith.”) This thesis is testable. Let’s consider what it means to say an organization has faith in this sense. What would that look like?

In Religious Organizations: Many organizations that are the objects of the new terminology could answer the question relatively simply. Most would answer (in words appropriate to their own tradition) that they have faith—they trust—in God, in God’s love and power, and in the ability of God’s love and power to transform people’s lives for the better. Most would also say that individuals who believe in God and are willing to be directed by Divine guidance and teachings can be the instruments of that love and power in doing that work of service and transformation. Most would be marked by organizational behaviors that enact and signal these beliefs. In my book, When the Bottom Line is Faithfulness, which examined the history and management of Christian service organizations, I argued that being faithful to their understanding of God’s teaching and direction should be the proverbial “bottom line” for these organizations.
In Businesses: The question of an organization’s faith does not necessarily end, however, with those that self-identify as religious.

Many businesses are built around an owner or operator’s faith that people can be convinced to spend (or spend more of) their money for some commodity or service that is of real (or higher) value. Corollary tenets of their faith may include that material progress is, in and of itself, of great value (see Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth); it is socially desirable to provide persons with things they need; and making a profit in the process is a good and legitimate goal. In short, they have faith in economic values and market mechanisms.

In our free-market, capitalist society most people accept these beliefs. In addition, our collective belief in the dynamics of the free-market system holds that when businesses are unfaithful to these principles—for example, by trying to sell things of no value, or deceiving customers about the value of what they sell—they will be punished by market forces. As a result we place relatively few limitations on the operations of businesses. We trust investors and consumers to reward businesses that produce goods and services of real value and provide them at the best price, leading to their success, and to punish businesses that produce little of value or products at a bad price, leading to their failure.

In Public Benefit Nonprofits: Now, what about nonprofits? What do secular nonprofit organizations believe and trust in as being ultimately true and ultimately valuable? Articulating what they have faith in, as that which motivates and shapes their work, is considerably more complicated.

So-called “public benefit nonprofits” may share a single legal form—the 501(c)(3) status—but there seems to be no single, central belief or motivation they share in the same way the profit motive may unite businesses or a commitment to serve God may link religious groups. What motivates and shapes the behavior of nonprofits—what they have faith in—may be very different as one moves from one type of nonprofit to another.

Educational organizations may have faith in the power of learning to improve the human condition. Healthcare organizations may have faith in people’s ability to get well or stay well given the right care and circumstances and in the benefits of improving health on the quality of life of whole communities. Foundations may have faith in the capacity of persons to improve their own circumstances, collectively as well as individually, if they are provided with the necessary resources. In short, different nonprofits might describe the beliefs and ideals that underpin their mission and shape their work in different terms.

Articulating any single set of principles or “faith” that they share seems impossible given the range of missions and types of work among the organizations we call “nonprofits.” Some value and work for social change, while others value and work for the preservation of the status quo. Some value inclusion in planning, governance and program implementation processes, while others seek out, foster and support a meritocracy (or even elitism) in leadership and service provision.

Still, perhaps it is possible that the faith they share is captured, or at least alluded to, in the notion of “public benefit?” All of these organizations, at least all that are not scams, do seem to believe that the work they are engaged in will benefit some significant segment of the public. They all seem to believe they serve “the public good.” They may have differing visions of what is good and differing assumptions about the best ways to achieve it, but all of them seem to believe that human beings can improve their own lot by laboring together for personal and social progress, and that this is ultimately worthwhile.

It also seems to me that as a larger society we expect all these organizations to operate with this kind of faith, and truly work for “the public good.” That is why we allow persons to make tax-deductible contributions to them, and give them a variety of other legal and economic advantages. These public expectations are the justification for the privileged status of nonprofits in our political system.

Why does this matter? It matters because the central motivating purposes, principles and values that organizations articulate as the reason for their existence and work—and in the case of nonprofits, privileged status—provide grounds for their public accountability. This is where “faithfulness” becomes an issue for all nonprofits. Whether an organization is faithful to the mission and values it says it holds is, and should be, a key question in the public’s perception and evaluation of the legitimacy of that organization. And, we should note, there is no set of organizations for which legitimacy is a more critical question than nonprofits.

In this sense, “faithfulness” is about integrity. In this sense, faithfulness to espoused values and goals is a critical question for the leadership of all organizations. In this sense, faithfulness may be an important measure of organizational performance in the same way that effectiveness is. This is especially true if the organization is operating in a realm where moral and social values are of great importance to the work the organization does, as is often the case for nonprofits.

If the raison d’etre for a business is to maximize the value of the firm to the benefit of its owners, and it consistently fails to do that, then we would expect owners to demand changes in the management. If those leading an organization whose purpose is to serve and honor God behave in ways that disgrace the faith they represent, we have no doubt they have failed in their service. In both these examples, we would accept that those running the organization should be removed for failing to be faithful to the organization’s central principles and purposes.

Do we, in a similar way, expect that the public, who are “the owners” of public benefit nonprofits in our legal structures, have the right to demand changes in the management of these organizations if they are unfaithful to their core values and purposes? Do we expect trustees, as “the owner’s representatives” to do that? What if the trustees are the problem?

All nonprofits might then be described as “faith-based” in one sense, and faithfulness should be a concern for all of them. All these organizations hold basic assumptions and beliefs about what is ultimately true and valuable that motivate and shape their missions and work. In the case of public benefit nonprofits, the public has expectations about what those beliefs and values should be. The leaders and managers of these organizations have obligations then to be faithful to both the values they have articulated as justifying their existence and the values the public expects them to honor. And for those evaluating the performance of these organizations, one of the most important questions to ask may be whether they are keeping faith with their highest ideals.

Thomas Jeavons is general secretary of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He holds a Ph.D. in management, was the first Director of the Center on Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management at Grand Valley State University, and has been a fellow at the Program on Nonprofit Organizations at Yale. He has worked for, studied and consulted with a wide variety of nonprofit organizations, and that experience shapes both his concerns about and his aspiration for them.