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Doing Good, Better – Introducing Social Innovation

Doing Good, Better – Introducing Social Innovation

In May Theos will launch a report on religious social innovation, called Doing Good Better. Here’s a taster, explaining the concept and asking what difference it could make to faith–based social action in the UK.

Doing more

Evidence is mounting that there has been an upswing in faith–based social action in recent years. There is a greater demand for civic action from all quarters, and faith communities, institutions, and leaders have been happy to oblige.

According to research from New Philanthropy Capital, well over one in every four charities in the United Kingdom has a faith basis. These charities have an annual income of around £16 billion. Moreover, a higher proportion of faith–based charities (34%) were registered with the Charity Commission in the last ten years than non–faith ones (25%), the figure for Christian charities being 38%.[1]

The National Church and Social Action Survey found that “UK churches have increased the average number of volunteer hours on social action to 114.8m per annum. This is an increase of 16.8% compared with two years earlier and 59.4% compared with four years ago”. The survey also suggested that the financial investment in social action was increasing, as was the amount of paid staff time dedicated to community activities.[2]

Theos’ own research with the Church Urban Fund in 2012 identified the sheer reach of faith–based social action. A nationally representative ComRes survey asked interviewees whether they, or an immediate family member, had used church–based community services in the preceding 12 months.  Around one in four respondents has used services provided by churches or church groups. This means that as many as 10 million adults every year could be using church of church–based community services (i.e. NOT ‘religious’ services like weddings, baptisms or funerals), without even accounting for those provided by non–Christian religious groups.[3]

In recent times most attention has been directed toward the amount of faith–based social action (or alternatively, towards the underlying motivations of it – see Nick Spencer’s coinage, Christian Social Liturgy). It’s a great thing that it’s growing, and that implies a greater cumulative impact, but there are other questions we could and should ask –  what kinds of services and projects to churches tend to offer, and why? How do they emerge and how are they taken up by different congregations or communities? Do they ‘work’? Is this or that project an effective intervention, and even if it is, how could it be more so?

These are not questions about the extent to which faith–based organisations ‘do good’. They assume that they do, and then ask ‘how can they do good, better?’

And doing better

Of course, these questions are being asked by faith–based charities and leaders, but not often in a programmatic way. Theos has undertaken this research project in order to at least begin to unpack them, using the concept of ‘social innovation’.

Social innovation is a concept that has gained significant traction in the wider ‘secular’ world of those looking to achieve social change. It comes partly in response to changes in what the state is prepared – or able – to do and because of increasing recognition that the market can’t always provide solutions. Meanwhile, many social problems are either not recognised, not faced, or only responded to when they become a serious and entrenched issue. It’s not that we can’t do anything about them, but our responses will have to be creative, collaborative and ambitious.

Social innovation describes the ideas, attitudes and processes which could help faith–based organisations respond to their changing context. But in spite of the sheer amount of religious social action, almost no–one has sought to make the connection and ask whether there could be any value in greater engagement between the two.

One response to this might be that faith–based organisations seem to be doing plenty, thank you very much. In many areas – foodbanks would be a good example – churches and church–based charities are responding strongly to social need. What more should they do?

In one of the only extended reflections on the relationship between social innovation and the Christian faith, Gregory Jones sets out the case:

Most people are hungry for innovation. We are hungry for new ways of living and doing things that can chart better paths forward. We are hungry for innovation because we know that we are facing challenges that are “complex,” problems that are “wicked.” These words convey that our challenges and problems intersect in ways that make them more difficult to address than just being “complicated” or “hard.” Indeed, our challenges and problems intersect so deeply that we need multiple strategies because no single approach can “solve” the challenge or “fix” the problem… We have a looming sense that too much of our world is in a state of degeneration or disruption, that older institutions and patterns of life are decaying and dying. We have a sense that we need something new.[4]

It is, for instance, no coincidence that there has been rapid growth in the social innovation industry since 2008. Although the processes of decay began before, we have in the last decade become acutely aware that old ‘social technologies’ are in a state of disrepair. As Angela Merkel has said, “Europe today accounts for just over 7 per cent of the world’s population, produces around 25 per cent of global GDP and has to finance 50 per cent of global social spending”.[5] The most likely future is one where the state is a substantial provider of islands of public services, but increasingly relies on community and religious organisations to serve those who fall off the edge.

Most people who want to talk about social innovation do so because they are interested in thinking and learning about have to have a greater social impact. In a phrase – albeit a clunky one – they want to ‘do good, better’. The language of social innovation is a kind of metaphor, one which pushes towards a more intentional, systematic, creative and ambitious approach to responding to social need. Social innovation helps us stop thinking about social change as the product of serendipity, chance and magic, and makes social transformation more of a craft to be practiced and honed over time.

Religious social innovation

In May we’ll be publishing a report introducing the concept of social innovation, looking at where it already exists in the world of faith–based social action and asking whether religious organisations could have a greater social impact.

What we’ve found is in keeping with a centuries–long tradition of campaigning, charity, and social change – although there’s a different ‘feel’ to faith–based innovation (one author calls religious social innovation ‘traditioned innovation’), there’s considerable creativity, ambition and imagination. Religious groups also have institutional resources which make them good places to innovate, particularly if you have an idea or approach you want to replicate rapidly. But – there’s always a but – faith–based social action is often too diffuse, fragmentary, and unclear about what it wants to achieve, or unclear about how it wants to go about it.

Faith–based organisations will always want to be involved in shaping a better world. Our report will outline how new approaches are already emerging and how they can be encouraged even more.

Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme at Theos

Doing Good Better: The Case for Faith–Based Social Innovation will be published mid–April.


[3] Paul Bickley, Good Neighbours: How Churches Help Communities Flourish (Theos, 2014);–neighbours–how–churches–helpcommunities–flourish 

[4] Jones, L. Gregory. Christian Social Innovation: Renewing Wesleyan Witness (Kindle Location 90–91). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Image by Life of Pix from available in the public domain

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

Watch, listen to or read more from Paul Bickley

Posted 3 April 2017

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