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Cities cash in on halo effect

July 29, 2017

What is the value of a city’s faith-based congregations, in terms of their contributions to the common good? In London, it’s just over $811 million. That’s according to Cardus, an Ontario-based think tank that focuses on “North American social architecture.” And it’s hoping to refine those findings further in the months ahead. The organization estimates that “for every dollar in a religious congregation’s annual budget, a city gets an estimated $4.77 worth of common good services” — a “halo effect,” not unlike the multipliers often used by civic groups or municipalities to plug the spinoff economic benefits of sporting or cultural events and institutions. However, unlike the sometimes woolly estimates bandied about by event promoters or consultants, the halo multiplier is a fairly conservative tool based on real figures, drawn from Canada Revenue Agency data and vetted by McMaster University’s Public Economic Data Analysis Lab (PEDAL). The database builds on a project in Toronto and earlier work at the University of Pennsylvania. Take that London figure, for example. It’s derived from recent government figures that show 351 faith congregations in the city — a wide range including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, etc. — with combined budgets of $170,027,809. The multiplier of 4.77, rooted in the earlier studies, brings the “halo benefit” to $811,032,649. That’s not insignificant in a city where the municipal budget itself is in the $1-billion range. Common-good services and assets, in the Cardus model, are captured in seven categories:Green space — lawns, gardens, garden plots, playgrounds, sports fields. Direct spending — operational and capital budgets, special projects and so on. Education — nursery schools, daycare and alternative schools. Magnet effects — conferences, weddings, funerals, religious festivals, money spent by visitors to the congregation and neighbourhood. Direct impact — services offered in areas such as suicide prevention, crime prevention, alcohol and substance abuse programs, marriage and relationship counselling, promotion of pro-social values and civic engagement among youth. Community development — job training, housing, lending services, small business and non-profit incubation. Social capital and care — volunteerism, meeting spaces, social programs such as food and clothing drives.The Cardus study makes clear that theirs is a work in progress; that it’s not so much interested in advocating for a point of view as it is in sharpening the tool’s accuracy and promoting dialogue along the way. What becomes equally clear is that, contrary to perceptions that faith congregations are insular, self-directed communities whose absence from city life would hardly be noticed, their contributions to Canadian life are significant and, perhaps, undervalued. They are good for the spirit — but they are also significant contributors to community building, engagement and a city’s bottom line. “The reality is if these congregations all disappeared, regardless of my individual beliefs are, or the next person’s, or my neighbour’s, all of us would see a decline in common good resources,” said Milton Friesen, a Cardus senior fellow and program director with its social cities projects. “What we’re saying is, if they disappear and you have to pick up that slack, that’s the size of the tab that’s coming your way. And the scale of that is quite significant.” Spiritual and faith communities have always been part of London, from the delicate creation-oriented traditions of our earliest Indigenous peoples, to the dominance of Christendom in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the solid-footed presence and integration of other faith traditions, such as Islam and Hinduism, today. Among Christian churches, a half dozen of them feature prominently in the city’s central core. Imagine downtown London without St. Peter’s basilica, Metropolitan and First St. Andrew’s churches, or St. Paul’s cathedral. Yet several of them have recently faced financial crises threatening their existence. For others, challenges still remain on the horizon. The “halo benefit” reminds us that the practical value of faith communities goes a fair distance beyond the benefits experienced by congregants themselves, regardless of their religious persuasion or geographic location within the city. And it’s a sobering reminder amid the slow decline of some of London’s important faith institutions. The “halo calculator” can be found at Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. — — — FAITH IN NUMBERSCity Religious OrganizationsHalo Benefit (in millions)     Brantford 108 $105.8Cambridge 123 $187.2Chatham 67 $97.4Goderich 14 $17.1Hamilton 344 $866.4Ingersoll 13 $10.9Kitchener 232 $1,195.4Leamington 33 $44.4London 351 $811.0St. Thomas 16 $12.1Sarnia 77 $143.3Stratford 40 $56.5Waterloo 95 $305.2Windsor 211 $269.9Woodstock 56 $77.8