News

Think tank says religious group spending pays off nearly five-fold

By Jennifer Bieman, The London Free Press

First United Church in St. Thomas. (Jennifer Bieman/Times-Journal)

First United Church in St. Thomas. (Jennifer Bieman/Times-Journal)

A new tool by a Hamilton-based think tank is letting Canadians coast to coast see how money from church collection plates in their community translates to social good on the street.

For every dollar congregations spend on programming, the community reaps $4.77 worth of benefit, according to Cardus estimates. Researchers call this divine social and economic spin-off a halo – and now the public can search for their town or city using the think tank’s tool.

“These communities are generating good beyond themselves and that means everybody is kind of benefitting,” said Milton Friesen, senior fellow and program director at Cardus.

“If they disappeared and you had to cover the common good benefits that they’re giving to the community, what would that cost you in a dollar figure?… Who would pick up that slack?”

The interactive online tool is an expansion of study published last year that focused 10 Christian and non-Christian Toronto congregations.

The Cardus team assigned market prices to the services each group provided – including daycares, recreation space, alcohol and drug addiction programming, family counselling, housing developments and helping refugees settle in Canada. Researchers interviewed church leaders and handed out detailed questionnaires for them to complete. The study was based on a similar project conducted in Philadelphia and was funded by the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, World Vision Canada, The Salvation Army and several other religious organizations.

When the project leads tallied up all the programs, assessed their monetary worth and compared the final sum to the 10 churches’ overall operating budget, they found that for every dollar the congregations spent on initiatives, the community receives nearly $4.77 in benefits.

“They’re not producing widgets or cars or things that can be directly linked to GDP…. But if they disappeared and the municipality or somebody had to put back all the stuff that’s missing, how much would that cost,” said Friesen.

The newly-released Halo Calculator applies the figure uncovered in Cardus’ 2016 study to Canada Revenue Agency data for church groups across the country. St. Thomas’ 16 listed congregations had a combined operating budget of $2,546,336 in 2013. By Cardus estimates, the total dollar value of the services they provide totals more than $12 million.

“This is all still very experimental,” said Friesen, adding the Halo Calculator numbers are only meant to be estimates.

“We’re hoping to generate more research. We’re pretty sure this is not the end of the story.”

Friesen wants the findings and the new online tool to spark conversations about the role religious institutions play in community development – especially at a time when some are facing an aging congregation and declining membership.

“This will hopefully generate discussion between municipalities and faith communities,” said Friesen.

“They are part of the social ecology of their communities. The look to be generative, they’re adding something, they’re not extracting. Let’s talk about what that means in terms of the long-term wellbeing of our communities.”

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Halo Effect in Southwestern Ontario

Dollar value of community impact

London – 351 organizations – $811,032,649

Sarnia – 77 organizations – $143,333,940

Chatham – 67 organizations – $97,430,622

Woodstock – 56 organizations – $77,840,471

Aylmer – 22 organizations – $19,320,647

St. Thomas – 16 organizations – $12,146,023

Dutton – 11 organizations – $2,560,670

West Lorne – 5 organizations – $2,146,438

Source: Cardus calculation based on 2013 Canada Revenue Agency T3010 data

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Find your city

www.haloproject.ca/calculator