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Determining the Economic Halo Effect of Sacred Places

In 2010, Partners for Sacred Places and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice concluded a pilot study of the economic impact of houses of worship. By assessing over 40 different factors, Partners tested a new quantitative approach to understanding how congregations impact local economies. The pilot suggested that congregations could now be viewed as critical economic catalysts, suggesting an important shift in community investment policy and practice.

We can categorize the dozens of ways congregations benefit their communities in three broad areas: 1) through direct spending; 2) the value of day care and K-12 educational programs; and 3) a range of catalyzing or leveraging economic values, such as Open Space, Magnet Effect, Community Development and Invisible Safety Net.

Since its founding in 1989, Partners has focused on understanding how congregations use their assets—including their buildings—to serve the wider public. Co-founders Bob Jaeger and Diane Cohen knew that congregations hosted a wide variety programs, ranging from soup kitchens to day care centers to job training.

The study, published by Jaeger and Cohen as Sacred Places at Risk [SPAR], found that urban congregations provide over $140,000 [in 1997 dollars] in resources to support community-serving programs each year.

In addition, the project confirmed that 4 out of 5 of those benefiting from church or synagogue-hosted outreach are not members of those congregations; in effect, sacred places serve as de facto neighborhood community centers.

Although groundbreaking, SPAR did not attempt to look at all of the ways that congregations impact their communities. While the tools that SPAR made possible were effective, they were limited. They measured the value of space and volunteer time of some social programs, but couldn’t account for the vast and more complex impacts of lives improved. In 2007 Partners convened a small group of researchers from academia and the non-profit sector to propose the concept of a larger valuation study, and included in that proposal several factors outlined by Associate Director, Tuomi Forrest. The proposal sought to factor in the value of green space, trees, building projects, tourism, and visitors to congregations, as well as the impact on public safety and housing values, support for local business and vendors, budget and taxes, affiliated Community Development Corporations and a congregation’s role as an incubator for new businesses or non-profits.

After securing a grant from William Penn Foundation to pilot this new study, Partners joined with Dr. Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice, and began to lay out a new, ambitious, quantitative approach to understanding the full value congregations provide to their local economy – an approach that could be used by government, policy analysts, and advocates.

Congregations are important employers; purchasers of local goods and services; magnets for bringing in cash, volunteer time and other resources from outside the city; and providers of important value through the ‘invisible safety net’ of programs and services that help individuals and families be productive workers and citizens.

For policy makers, community and business leaders, and funders interested in a particular facet of economic life, this data should help guide their investment. For those interested in tourism, understanding how congregations attract travelers regionally and nationally is critical. For those wanting to strengthen commercial corridors, understanding the flow of people from a congregation and how they support local business, or how congregations incubate small ventures is critical.  Some congregations have significant green space and trees; in effect they manage mid-size urban parks that contribute the economic and environmental well-being of the city and region.

Based on this initial work, Partners and Dr. Cnaan decided to take the next step in further testing the “Halo” concept and methodology. With funding support from the Lilly Endowment and the McCormick Foundation, we conducted a study that greatly increased the number of congregations assessed, selected those congregations at random, and expanded the scope geographically as well, including the cities of Fort Worth and Chicago along with Philadelphia. Results of this larger study were released in 2016.