Published originally as an answer to the following question for Vox Populi 14:
3. Religious believers seem to take it upon themselves to build hospitals and operate a lot of charities, and then use this as evidence that the religions are more moral. What is your interpretation? CHARITY.mp3
Philanthropy and management of services are two different questions. First of all, I think that the running of a charitable organization is a skill that requires extensive training separate from that for running a profit-making enterprise. Those who run charitable and nonprofit organizations should be required to to be highly qualified. I question whether or not, many of the religious charities are being run by people who have sufficient management experience. [Many are volunteers.]
I would support a strong separation between the raising of funds and the management of the funds. I think most philanthropists are people who have already figured out how to make a lot of money. And they start various foundations of private charities mainly as tax shelters, and I think that’s a good thing. There is a certain amount of benefit to the idea of having tax exemptions for organizations that can prove that they are providing a service the government would otherwise have to provide.
So I would say that often times religious charities are a compromise. They may not be run as well as they could be run, number one. Number two, when they disburse their money it’s not a disinterested gift that they’re giving. They may be caring for the sick or feeding the hungry or caring for the poor, but it’s with the understanding that those people will then sit and listen to their presentations. It’s kind of like when you get those little invitations in the mail where they’re giving you three nights in a hotel in return for sitting through a 90 minute presentation on their condo timeshare they want to sell you.
I think what a lot of these religious charities actually do is; they strike a bargain: and that’s something I don’t think the government should support. If they do support this type of charity-backed proselytizing, it’s in fact government sponsorship of religion, which is expressly prohibited by the establishment clause of the Constitution.
So I would lay this challenge down to religious charities: if you would like to prove that you are more moral than others, give your charity with no strings attached.