Thursday, August 21, 2014

Samaritan’s Purse as Illustrative of the Benefits and Challenges of Government-Nonprofit Collaboration

The Washington Post has published a piece featuring Samaritan’s Purse – the charitable nonprofit making headline news for its role in helping save the lives of two front-line medical missionaries who contracted Ebola while serving in Liberia.  The story describes the world-wide humanitarian relief provided by Samaritan’s Purse, its role in partnering with governmental and nonprofit agencies to address international public health crises, and the occasional controversies that have arisen from its faith-based mission or some of the opinions that its president, Franklin Graham, has expressed on contemporary issues.

As to its important role in promoting international public health, the story states the following:


… Smart Money magazine has named Samaritan’s Purse the most efficient religious charity numerous times, and the group maintains a reputation of being among the first to combat the worst public health crises around the world.


Given the remote and hard-to-reach areas they work in, there’s been many instances in the past where we’ve first heard of specific suspected clusters of illnesses through them,” Rima Khabbaz, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, said of NGOs such as Samaritan’s Purse. “They are no doubt very important partners in our global public health work. Not infrequently, [the] first unconfirmed reports reach the public health community through them.”


Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said in many parts of the world, groups such as Samaritan’s Purse and Doctors Without Borders “are the safety net for global health.” He added: “They are the ones in the areas of war and civil unrest.”


As to the “controversies” involving the organization itself, the story first cites criticism by the New York Times when SP communicated a religious message while assisting victims of an earthquake in El Salvador.  Apparently the Times objected to such communications because SP had received $200,000 from USAID – though SP was later found not to have violated governmental guidelines.  Another alleged controversy involved an effort by SP to distribute Arabic-language Bibles during the 1990-1991 gulf war through U.S. troops (presumably volunteers, although the story never says so) – a plan that reportedly “drew a sharp rebuke” from General Norman Schwarzkopf because it would have violated a US-Saudi agreement that there would be no proselytizing.

In my judgment, the story illustrates inevitable differences between the public and nonprofit sector.  What SP does effectively by way of humanitarian relief depends on its faith – at numerous levels.  SP assists the suffering because of theological commitments to meet both spiritual and physical needs.  Indeed, a tenet of SP's Statement of Faith reads as follows:

We believe that human life is sacred from conception to its natural end; and that we must have concern for the physical and spiritual needs of our fellowmen. Psalm 139:13; Isaiah 49:1; Jeremiah 1:5; Matthew 22:37-39; Romans 12:20-21; Galatians 6:10.

SP’s faith-based mission takes it to isolated places many governmental agencies would otherwise overlook – places where not just spiritual needs, but also pressing medical and other physical needs, surface.  SP’s vast network of volunteers and staff likely works with unusual dedication because of their commitment not just to a “cause,” but to a “Cause.”

Yet care must be taken when government partners with nonprofits – by both partners.  A religious nonprofit must be careful not to use government resources in a manner inconsistent with valid secular objectives.  And government must be careful not to try to transform the religious nonprofit into a neutral, nonsectarian agency.  The public is right to demand that both hold up their obligations in such a partnership. On the whole, the story suggests that SP and public bodies that have worked with them generally follow the rules of the partnership.



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