Introductory Remarks for 2015 Annual Meeting of the Philanthropy Roundtable Panel

There has been a recent flurry of articles by the World Bank, Nick Kristof in the New York Times, Andrew Mayeda in Benchmark and others about the progress in the elimination of extreme poverty in the world. Of course, there have been other articles, notably Jason Hickel writing in Al Jazeera that these reports have been intentionally distorted and based on faulty data. Whatever the case for the success or failure of poverty elimination, there is more to the story than the reduction of material poverty. When the only measure of success is the difference between a $1.25 and $1.95 daily income we have too narrow a focus on the issue. In some ways, purely secularized poverty relief has become like the universities David Brooks described in a recent New York Times column.

“Universities are more professional and glittering than ever, but in some ways there is emptiness deep down. Students are taught how to do things, but many are not forced to reflect on why they should do them or what we are here for. They are given many career options, but they are on their own when it comes to developing criteria to determine which vocation would lead to the fullest life.”

Is there something more to poverty alleviation than we are measuring? Is poverty something more than an economic problem to be solved? What does it profit a man to gain $1.00 in daily income or to give a billion away and not enrich his soul? We are exploring the role of three faith-based approaches this morning. Of course, every approach is faith-based ­ even the most secular institutions make certain assumptions and have confidence in those assumptions. They build their programs around their faith in them.

Too often, the term faith-­based is used to describe well­-intentioned do gooders with soft hearts and minds who are primarily interested in proselytizing or merely relieving the symptoms of poverty. They have been relegated to the margins and while they have been sometimes given great respect and esteem for their personal sacrifice ­even granted sainthood ­they are not always seen as serious players in the work going to scale. That is, until recently when the Gates Foundation made it plain they have begun to recognize the role “faith-­based” organizations play in the delivery of care and services.

But as Pope Francis has said, “The Church is not a political movement, or a well-organized structure… We’re not an NGO, and when the church becomes an NGO she loses salt, has no flavor, is only an empty organization.”

Where is the balance then? What is it that faith­-based organizations bring to the local and global efforts to reduce poverty? Are they marginal ­ nice but not necessary ­or are what we sometimes politely call faith­-based perhaps the most substantive of all?

This morning we are going to hear from and have a conversation with three men who bring unique perspectives to us ­an evangelical Christian, a conservative Catholic and an Orthodox Jew. I hope by the end of our time all of us will have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the work and contribution of these three faith traditions in addressing poverty in our world.

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