Washington Teaches Agencies to Fish, But They’re Still Hungry

Andrew D. Beadle
June 1, 2003

Faith-based organizations eager for government money are grateful that the Bush administration is teaching them to navigate the federal grants process, but some complain that the administration hasn’t come through with more money for their programs.

“Most people thought the dollars were going to jump out of Washington and flood the communities,” said Willie Gable, a New Orleans pastor and director of the Foundation for the MidSouth’s African-American Faith-Based Initiative. “Some still think there’s going to be this flood of dollars.”

Money has been coming out of Washington, but not in a torrent. And to the frustration of some small, religion-based organizations, all the funds associated with the president’s faith-based and community initiative so far have been for training and technical assistance.

“They have failed to achieve what they told us they would be able to in the beginning,” said the Rev. Carl Brown, of Valley Queen Baptist Church in Marks, Miss. “We have concluded the faith-based thing is an election program. Maybe as we near the election of ’04, we’ll see the money.”

The disconnect between the White House and some of the faith-based groups that it courted might reflect a classic case of the public not understanding how Washington works – or a case of the administration raising the groups’ expectations too high.

‘Level the Playing Field’

Since Bush inaugurated his faith-based and community initiative in January 2001, the administration has taken numerous steps to make it easier for religious organizations to win federal grants. One of the primary objectives is to educate those organizations.

T o that end, the administration developed the Compassion Capital Fund, a training program administered through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Last October, the ACF awarded $24.7 million in demonstration grants to 21 organizations to help less experienced faith- and community-based programs access federal dollars. The organizations that received the grants are also intermediaries, making technical grants to some of the programs for which they provide training.

“It’s one of the most exciting initiatives we’ve been involved in with the federal government,” said Shepherd Smith, president of the Virginia-based Institute for Youth Development. The institute received $2.5 million, the largest ACF grant. “There are lots of folks out there that are interested in federal funding but don’t have the knowledge” about how to get it, he said.

The institute plans to run 24 half-day training seminars on federal grants by Sept. 30, and hopes to reach 2,500 religion- and community-based organizations. It also plans to award between 55 and 95 three-year grants of up to $30,000 for capacity building. Only organizations that have never been awarded a federal grant are eligible for the pass-through grants, and they must agree to apply for federal funds in the future.

“The enthusiasm everywhere across the country is phenomenal,” Smith said, estimating that 125 people attend each workshop. He said the sessions help alleviate the feeling among many small, faith-based organizations that they have been overlooked and their work has been undervalued.

The response has also been positive to training run by Father Joe’s Villages, a San Diego-based organization that operates programs for homeless people. The organization received a $673,000 Compassion Capital Fund demonstration grant to issue training and technical assistance subgrants.

The seminars “open a lot of doors and answer a lot of questions, and will bring a lot of these organizations to the table,” said Mathew Packard, vice president of development. Father Joe’s expects to distribute $900,000 in grants over the next three years to help organizations build their capacity.

Faith-based organizations noted, however, that any money they receive through the Compassion Capital Fund cannot be used to provide services.

“It hasn’t trickled down to local grass roots,” Brown said from Mississippi. “When the (granting) foundation finishes, you’re lucky to get $5,000, and that’s not enough to support a program.”

But the initiative was never intended to direct money to faith-based and community organizations, according to Bush administration officials and congressional supporters.

“The idea is not to get a dedicated funding stream, but to level the playing field,” said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Without the training programs, many faith- and community-based groups would have trouble winning grants, not to mention administering the funds according to federal guidelines, which are complicated even for veterans of the process.

“Sometimes the people who do the best work are the worst businessmen,” said the Rev. Steve Burger, executive director of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Association of Gospel Missions, who was among those invited to a White House summit in January 2001 to show support for the initiative. “Where the trouble comes is, they’re committed to helping people. The bureaucracy and the paperwork come second, third or fourth to them.”

‘Someone to Call’

Like others, Burger lauded the administration for opening faith-based and community initiative offices in several federal agencies and for staffing them with people who have experience outside of government.

“The people he [Bush] has chosen, many of them have backgrounds in faith-based organizations. These are people who are not outsiders,” Burger said. Faith-based offices are located in the departments of Justice, Labor, Education, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development.

Those offices have made a huge difference, even if they just provide clarification about processes, said Packard from Father Joe’s.

“Just to have someone to call is a real help, especially for a novice in the grant process,” Packard said.

The administration has taken several other steps to promote the initiative. Bush signed an executive order in December to clarify that agencies cannot discriminate against organizations based on religion when awarding grants.

The White House has devoted a section of its website (www.whitehouse.gov/government/fbci) to the initiative, providing information about grant eligibility and application instructions. The administration has also taken pains to publicize nearly every available grant open to faith-based organizations, with several agencies hosting conferences about opportunities of certain grant programs open to faith-based groups.

“It was a very good introduction to the program and the process,” said Amy Parsons, a grants associate with the Los Angeles-based Bresee Foundation, who attended a government-sponsored conference to discuss Education Department grants. “For a faith-based organization that is relatively new, and that does not have any federal grants, I think it would have been exceptional for them.”

The administration also hosted five conferences across the nation to provide more technical assistance. The conferences drew more than 1,500 participants, according to the White House.

All of that activity has been helpful, said Virgil Gulker, founder and executive director of Kids Hope USA and a participant at the 2001 White House meeting. “The initiative has created a greater level of awareness regarding faith-based programs,” said Gulker, whose Holland, Mich.-based organization matches churches with public schools for mentoring.

Capitol Passion
Despite the flurry of White House activity, Congress has not reached a consensus on opening more social programs to faith-based organizations. The oft-debated proposal has split lawmakers, primarily along party lines, largely over the hiring rights of religious organizations and questions of church-state separation. The debate has become so contentious that Gulker said he no longer accepts invitations to speak on the issue in Washington.

“I know President Bush is enthusiastically supportive, but I don’t know about Congress,” said Gulker. “It continues to be just an issue, not a reality.”

The administration’s latest defeat came in the Senate, which stripped faith-related provisions from its Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act. The Senate approved the legislation, which would provide tax incentives to encourage charitable donations, in April.

Passage in the House is almost certain, as legislation (HR 7) that is similar to the Senate bill (S 476) has broad bipartisan support. Although the House Republican leadership plans to attach faith-based provisions to other legislation, it seems unlikely that the House and Senate will agree on a single bill that incorporates all the administration’s goals.

“The issue is discussed in Washington; compassion is practiced in the community. The distance between the two is galactic,” Gulker said.