Work carried out by faith groups in Sheffield is worth more than £11 million to the city - as 4,250 helpers give their time to provide over 700 projects.
Sheffield’s first Faith Action Audit, an exercise that calculated the economic value and social impact of local churches and other religious groups, found volunteers put in 1.24 million hours last year on schemes ranging from food banks to debt advice services and childcare facilities.
There were, the audit discovered, 124,000 individual beneficiaries of these initiatives in 2017. It suggests the faith community is increasingly plugging the gap created by austerity-driven budget cuts, changes to benefits and rising housing costs.
Together for Sheffield, a band of leaders from the business, church and public sectors, commissioned the research from the Cinnamon Network, an organisation that seeks to advance the role of churches. “It’s completely within the realm of possibility that we can double this impact, together, over the next five years,” said businessman Ben Woollard, chair of TFS.
The audit found that, in total, faith volunteers’ work was worth £11.2 million last year, using a calculation based on the living wage in England, with 723 projects being run by 4,250 people. One hundred religious groups - Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and others - each delivered eight projects on average, supporting 12,244 individuals.
Helpers were assisting people of all ages, from under five to over 66, the study pointed out, and with men and women in almost equal measure. The biggest group of beneficiaries were aged 26 to 45.
“This confounds the stereotypical image of a church engaging mostly women and children through a few coffee mornings and parent and toddler groups, giving an insight into the true breadth, value and impact on all sections of the community that churches and faith groups offer,” said the report.
The aim now, the audit concludes, is for churches and faith groups to be ‘externally recognised and resourced’, working in partnership with other institutions such as the council and police, and receiving more funding.
Jon Watts, pastor of The Rock Christian Centre in Burngreave, said his organisation had recently installed a gun and knife amnesty bin outside in a bid to cut violent crime.
“Church leaders are not always the best at working together and are not famous for decisive action,” he told a launch event at the Cathedral this week.
But, he observed, religious groups came promptly to victims’ aid in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster a year ago. “Time and time again on the anniversary last week, it was faith leaders being interviewed by the media. We have to ask why. It was faith leaders who were able to open up their churches to mobilise an army of volunteers to meet the desperate need of the public at that time. Sheffield needs the church and faith communities to meet the enormous challenges of this great city. We need one another and we need to work together for Sheffield.”
The Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev Dr Pete Wilcox, discussed the findings with a panel comprising Olivia Blake, the deputy leader of Sheffield Council; Jayne Brown, chair of Sheffield Health and Social Care NHS Foundation Trust; Maddy Desforges, chief executive of Voluntary Action Sheffield and Neill Birchenall, boss of IT firm BirchenallHowden, which sponsored the launch.
When asked where he saw the ‘greatest level of need’, Mr Birchenall said any response to the audit should be focused on raising the aspirations of young people.
“We talk about multiple generations of worklessness. It’s amazing what young people can do, given the opportunity. There’s a need for more of us to spend time with them.”
But, he added, requests for companies’ involvement in projects were sometimes ‘too vague’.
“It’s really important that it’s very clear. If you’re asking for time, whose time do you want and how much? If you’re asking for money, what is the money going to? Those types of asks give businesses the opportunity to get involved by making it more tangible.”
Coun Blake said one in four people were living in poverty, and that Sheffield faced a ‘unique and difficult challenge to overcome’.
“We are inherently divided – that has been the case for decades. We are growing as a city, which is positive, but the rate of wage growth is quite slow which is having a direct impact on families.”
Bishop Wilcox said: “I was very struck by the observation that there was a ‘lower appetite’ for partnership working in Sheffield than other places that have done audits. I found that quite sobering.”
Faith groups were collaborating with the NHS the least. “There seems to be a massive need there in how we can support people to stay well,” said Ms Desforges, while Ms Brown said: “Just having some good data is very important.”
A project called the Emergency Department Pastors – church volunteers who work in the A&E department at the Northern General Hospital – is expanding as it is ‘so valued’ by health bosses, the event was told.
Sandie Keene, of Together for Sheffield, said faith groups could ‘broaden their reach’, particularly in the city’s north eastern suburbs.
An action plan will be published this autumn.
‘We don’t make decisions about who we help’
Awards were presented at the Cathedral to groups that demonstrate how the faith community is providing services in Sheffield.
TimeBuilders, at St Mary’s Bramall Lane, works with hundreds of people who experience loneliness, poverty, unemployment and mental illness – those who volunteer receive ‘time credits’ to spend on things like football tickets and café meals.
Meanwhile, Baby Basics operates in the same way as a food bank, accepting donations of items such as wipes, nappies and bottles which are given to vulnerable mothers referred by health professionals.
“We don’t make any decisions about who we help, we rely on agencies to tell us and we really want that to continue,” said the founder, Hannah Peck, who started Baby Basics in a store cupboard at her church. The initiative has spread to other places, including Northampton and Milton Keynes.