Rooted in religion, charities branch out

A.D. 2000 Workers' Top Concern -- My pager's going off. My wife's away on business. It's flat out, 24-7. I need to make some time to relax.

If a millennium of change has transformed the business world, it has rendered charitable organizations almost unrecognizable.

The world of monks and temple priests dispensing aid to the needy has given way to secular specialists working for the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace. Instead of local alms, international groups such as CARE and Save the Children span the globe.

Is it progress? In most ways, yes.

Far more groups help far more people today than ever before. And yet, the gap between rich and poor yawns as widely as ever. Even the notion of charity - giving with no hope of return - may be evolving toward something new and market driven.

But the religious impulse remains strong. Most major religions emphasize giving and have created organizations to encourage it. For centuries, wealthy Muslims have left their estates to the church or the community for the betterment of society. The West may have reorganized and secularized charity more than most cultures, but it was a strong Judeo-Christian tradition that fed its beginnings.

In 11th century Europe, for example, religiously based hospitals began to join monasteries as dispensers of aid. Later, guilds set up collection boxes to help widows and orphans of deceased members. Gradually, legal procedures for handling wills, deeds, and trusts took hold throughout Europe.

Then in the 15th and 16th centuries, as the Reformation gained acceptance, secular governments began to assert control by consolidating and reorganizing charities.

Over the next few centuries, leaders of church and state argued over who would administer social welfare. By the early 20th century, many European nations had created partnerships between the two sides. In 1917, the Netherlands finally resolved that the state would collect taxes for public schools, but hand the funds over to Catholic, Protestant, and unaffiliated school systems to administer. Other nations, such as France, put control firmly in the hands of the state.

In the US, meanwhile, a new charitable organization sprung up: the foundation. Thoroughly secular, started by wealthy families, foundations brought a new level of sophistication and scope to philanthropy. Various Rockefeller foundations, for example, eliminated the boll weevil from the American South and pushed forward agricultural innovation in Asia. "They brought in the best minds that money could buy," says Edward Berman, retired professor of comparative education at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. "They had the freedom to innovate because they were new organizations and they were accountable to no one."

The aftermath of World War II pushed many charities to look beyond their national borders and help Europe rebuild. Such efforts set the stage for large nongovernmental organizations such as Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund.

Today, cuts in US government funding have forced nonprofits to turn to the marketplace. Experiments include cause-related marketing (where some firms back charitable causes to boost their image).

"Is it charity anymore?" asks Lester Salamon, coauthor of "Global Civil Society." "This is the very difficult gray area that a lot of organizations find themselves in. And I think we're still trying to work out the rules of the road for this kind of activity."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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