Going Community By Community

January 2, 2007       Paul Clolery      

Things have gone full circle at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFBCI). The concept started as an idea that was developed with the help of several think tanks, particularly academics and thinkers in Texas and Indianapolis.

As the office became more than a concept, two directors during six years began putting sometimes controversial programs in place. Now during the final two years of President George W. Bush ’s administration, the new director is from Indianapolis, a throwback to those early days of considering what the office should become after Bush leaves office.

When Jay F. Hein, deputy assistant to the President and director of the faith-based office speaks, you start looking around the room for his researcher’s lab coat and a two-way mirror for watching focus groups. He has a paper trail of more than a decade of writing regarding welfare reform and government cooperation with community groups. He speaks of devolution, the role of the federal government being more of a broker of ideas put into practice than of implementing policy.

In an exclusive discussion with The NonProfit Times, the former executive director of the Sagamore Institute in Indianapolis talked about government, his evolution into the job, and an agenda for making sure that the concept of faith-based funding is embedded in government, rather than an idea wiped from the books with a new administration.

“I’m a big believer that reform isn’t one idea good or bad. It’s hundreds of ideas that need to be sorted out, what works, what doesn’t and why,” said Hein of the exploration of more efficient working relationships between government and groups.

He is not troubled by the fact that the office no longer directly reports to the White House but to the president’s domestic policy advisor, or that his title is a level below his predecessor’s. It is not a downgrading of status, he contended. “It’s a six-year program. It’s not an idea that’s debatable whether we do it or not,” Hein said. “We have 11 agencies now that have cabinet centers, meaning there are 11 directors in place who serve both their cabinet secretary and the White House and are considering these solutions.”

He called the office “a multi-dimensional initiative reforming government and creating innovative policy solutions and working not only in Washington, but now there are 33 governors involved and also all 50 states that offer forms of block grant dollars.”

Hein said that his goal in the job is to “expand the strategies that my predecessors put in place, but add to it an emphasis on devolution, moving things out to states and communities, which is very important to me and akin to my background and experience. It’s drawing more emphasis on private strategies, not just government contracting strategies, but what of the role of philanthropy, corporate citizenship, traditional philanthropy.”

Hein spent time during the 1990s working with then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, developing policies on welfare reform and government contracting issues. “Government isn’t synonymous with public interest. Indeed government has a valuable role to play but there are so many private interests,” said Hein. Included in his list are employers with enlightened self-interest, local and national foundations, and high net-worth individuals who are entrepreneurial in their businesses and want to use the same skills to solve social problems. “So, I studied it as a researcher. We also tested in demonstration-projected mode some of these new forms of collaboration,” said Hein.

The emphasis prior to Hein was on helping faith-based organizations gain access to government money, particularly block grants. During the office’s first few years, under John Dilulio, the focus was on preparing government to allow access through changes in federal regulations, particularly organizations that limit who they hire to those of their particular faith. The second phase, under James Towey, was pushing religious groups to establish 501(c)(3) affiliates so that they could apply for grants.

Based on a review of 130 competitive programs and 28 program areas at seven federal agencies during 2005, faith-based organizations received $2.15 billion, roughly 10.9 percent of available federal funding. It was a funding increase of 7 percent from Fiscal 2004 and 21 percent from Fiscal 2003, according to White House statistics. Numbers were not captured for how many organizations filed for 501(c)(3) status based on training from the 28 conferences held across the country by WHOFBCI during the past six years.

In this third phase, while there is still emphasis on funding, it’s more of government as a catalyst, clustering resources in communities, said Hein.

Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch in Washington, D.C., said the office has been a disappointment and that if the plan is devolution from government to communities, the White House hasn’t been listening.

“Part of the message in the midterm election was the government has to do a better job. People don’t want government to stop serving them, they want the corruption and scandal to end,” said Bass. “The most important issue in a national poll the weekend before the election was that government should serve the public good instead of special interests. They did not call for limited government or for dumping everything to the nonprofit or for-profit sectors.”

Hurricane Katrina response taught the White House that there are issues between the government and the nonprofit sector. “Katrina was a very interesting story about dollars. There were more private dollars then public allocated in that space. You’ve written about it and taught us a lot about the scope and scale of response,” said Hein. “Well, that’s a terrific part of America isn’t it, our generosity and outpouring, and it’s a fascinating configuration how we do public investment and get this outpouring from the private side. We also learned that there is a lack of communication and a lack of coordination that can cause redundant spending or sometimes wasteful spending and impact our performance in a negative way.”

Bass said that Katrina should have taught the government that it’s more than just a coordination problem. “Let’s start with the abdication of government responsibility,” said Bass. “Katrina recovery worked so well because there was a poor federal response and a great outpouring from the private side. I don’t think so.”

Katrina response was a complete government failure, not something that should be tossed on the shoulders of the private sector and the nonprofit community, Bass said. “Let’s have a government that provides the resources to avoid the calamities of Katrina so that it doesn’t take a national outpouring to address the crisis. We have Katrinas-in-waiting in many of our communities: poverty, lack of transportation, chemical and nuclear facilities unprotected, an electrical grid significantly overloaded. Let’s get our government back in action.”

Hein said that it isn’t about government buying services, but buying the best services. He said that small grants, $25,000 to $50,000, to communities can often be more significant than throwing money at problems. “It complements what we are trying to do. The more we do from top-down dictates, then we are controlling the work that’s done,” said Hein. “What we need to do is unleash innovation, and so a mini-grant, for example, or our intermediary strategy, are two tools we use to get closer to the grassroots, engage more groups to compete and bring forward their ideas on how they are going to address problems.”

The key words buzzing from the first days of the WHOFBCI remain there today. Some in the non-religious charitable world say that terms such as breaking down barriers, innovation, discrimination and measurements, block grants, can be code for funneling money to the administration’s pet projects.

“I love the code words. ‘Discrimination’ becomes code for funding religious institutions. Meanwhile, real discrimination continues today. Where is the administration? ‘Performance’ becomes code for measuring programs based on ideological objectives to pursue the ideological objectives,” said Bass. “We’ve progressed from the red, orange, green grading to the absurdity of the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) that he is referring to. So what happens when a program does not rate high? Does that mean get rid of it, or that it needs more money to do a better job? It’s interesting that the PART scores under Bush have absolutely no connection to the budget requests the president makes. Ultimately, this administration is using performance measurement as a thinly veiled tool to achieve its own ideological agenda.”

The door is now open wide to researchers, said Hein. “There are a lot of research questions I would find very interesting,” he said, adding that he wants “researchers coming into this space more frequently and on a larger scope and scale to help us think things through.”

Said Hein, “It’s my job to promote more and more of that research. It will help us all for the long run to better understand how these various strategies work.”

Hein intends to go back to Indiana, the Sagamore Institute and to research two years from now. He’ll have a job waiting. He was replaced with a part-time executive for the time being. NPT

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