News: Faith-based in a secular world

Development blog Whydev recently asked us a few questions about faith based non-government organisations (NGOs) and non-religious people. Brendan Joyce provided this response.

Palms Australia is a Catholic organisation, but we do not demand our international volunteers, our board nor individual staff to be Catholic. With many terrific candidates from diverse backgrounds who could contribute to our mission, such a criterion could be counter-productive. The diversity within each religion is such that “ticking the faith box” may not indicate an individual is any closer to an NGO’s values than someone of another or no religion.

Though such a criterion may limit an organisation, there may be certain positions where some religious background or understanding is vital. For example, a role may involve speaking at faith-based events or liaising with other church groups. Perhaps one could think of an understanding of religious language, culture and motivations as a competency or skill required for certain positions, though for someone with little religious background it may be more difficult than one thinks to navigate diverse sensitivities within a particular context.

The essential aspect for one wishing to work for a faith-based NGO is to respect its faith foundation. This may be difficult at times for non-religious as they struggle to identify what this means.1 Words like ‘mission’ and ‘evangelise’ may turn some off if seen as indicative of a conversion crusade, but if efforts are made to understand their more nuanced meanings, they can be informative of the NGO’s historical, spiritual and cultural priorities. If individuals share the same vision, mission and values, their differences should not stop them from working together.

Despite the similarities between some faith-based and some secular NGOs in terms of program objectives and operations, it is important not to think faith could be removed from development entirely. Many individuals are motivated by faith and will seek programs which reflect these values. If these agencies were to drop their faith in pursuit of inclusiveness (noble an aim as it is), those who identified with the organisation because of their faith may feel unsupported or misunderstood, possibly moving on to less established or ethical organisations professing these values but perhaps implementing different, even nefarious, aims.

There is also a great risk that the increasingly secular ‘developed’ world neglects the importance of the spiritual in many of the cultures in which development activities occur. Many of Palms’ partners, even some non-faith-based ones, identify something in our values which appeals to them more than a secular alternative. Understanding someone else’s values is a vital step in building a mutual relationship of trust and respect with them. Principals of community Development and subsidiarity tell us that the decisions should be made as much as possible at the grassroots level. If a community in Timor-Leste, Indonesia or India feels more comfortable working with a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu organisation, then that should be respected by aid workers and donors.

Respecting a culture also means respecting the community’s right to define their own culture. As uncomfortable as it may be to a “lapsed” or non-religious person, this will often include aspects of Western culture passed on in “missionary” times or less pleasant aspects of modern Western culture such as consumerism. Sustainable changes only occur when the people decide to make them. By seeking to understand local counterparts, rather than judge them, the aid worker might actually learn more, better understanding the development needs of the community and themselves.


1 To reduce potential confusion, NGOs should clearly outline their mission, what they do and what they don’t do. NGOs which lack such clarity risk becoming something else entirely when staff or directors turnover. Palms’ processes for election of the directors by members also help prevent this.

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The poor themselves can create a poverty-free world —
all we have to do is to free them from the chains that we have put around them. - Muhammad Yunus