White House Report Maps Faith Based Programs

In its final year in power, the Bush administration has begun the process of writing its version of history, outlining the efforts of its often controversial Faith-Based and Community Initiative (FBCI) in a newly-released report.

“The Quiet Revolution — The President’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative: A Seven-Year Progress Report,” is the first comprehensive self-analysis of the faith-based initiative, previously told in “a culmination of individual stories and compartmentalized reports.”

The FBCI has been “a quiet revolution in how government engages community partners to address human need and how public and private interests combined for the common good,” according to the report.

But it wasn’t all that quiet when the FBCI was created by executive order in 2001. The constitutionality of giving tax dollars directly to churches was questioned, along with concerns raised about whether those dollars would be used to advance religious interests. Supporters contended that legislation blocks faith-based charities from access to billions in federal grants. Another issue raised was that religious groups also are not required to file federal tax forms, something nonprofits must do each year with the federal Form 990.

The 122-page document outlines when it termed 10 “innovations” advanced by President Bush’s faith-based initiative:

  • Leveling the playing field so that faith-based organization could compete for government grants;
  • Expanding partnership with grassroots organizations;
  • Implementing the FBCI through cabinet agencies;
  • Building mutually-reinforcing clusters of service;
  • Applying the FBCI vision to international aid and development;
  • Growing key elements of the FBCI in all 50 states;
  • Building the capacity of nonprofit sector leaders through training and technology;
  • Expanding public-private partnerships;
  • Forge a united strategy with the president’s call to service; and,
  • Catalyze the compassion agenda.

The report details a number of FBCI programs, including the Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, with 30 locations in 20 states; Access To Recovery, an addiction and substance abuse program; and Mentoring to Children of Prisoners, an at-risk youth effort in 49 states with more than 70,000 mentors. It also details activities at the agency level, such as the Anti-Gang Initiative in eight locations and a domestic violence prevention program serving more than 1,500 people a month in 20 states.

The office touts a 19-percent increase in awards to secular nonprofits from 2004 to 2006 and a 41-percent hike in awards to faith-based groups from 2003 to 2006.

“When you combine the strengths of civil society, faiths and different faiths and no faith at all that comprise the nonprofit sector, you can reach farther,” said Jay Hein, deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (WHOFBCI). “The report speaks to how partnerships can be formed between government and religious organizations, and stay on the right side of the law and protect the character of these organization and protect those seeking services.”

At a legal or constitutional level, “this initiative has been very careful on that question, and diligent in administering contracts that respect the First Amendment,” said Hein.

“The Quiet Revolution” details several key establishment clause cases during the past two decades, as well as a major Supreme Court victory last summer in a case brought by the Foundation For Religious Freedom.

“We think that this initiative will just continue to grow at the federal and state level… because society’s needs are complex; we do need more partners, not less,” Hein said. He added that the number of governors (35) who have replicated the president’s strategy has grown each year, in addition to more than 100 mayors. “We see sustainability at the federal, state and local level.”

Some in the nonprofit sector see the report history-building. The administration “is in legacy season…and they’re trying to make the best case for what they’ve accomplished,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, director of graduate programs for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and former CEO of the CNCS.

“It reflects large portions of the domestic policy agenda of the Bush administration and they’re trying to get that on the record, and associating it with his compassionate conservatism agenda,” he said.

The report doesn’t address one of the earliest issues faced by administration: whether or not faith-based and community groups could be more effective than others, Lenkowsky said. “While this report indicates that the administration took that question seriously, it doesn’t present any results,” he said. Instead, it’s mainly snapshot data of where the program is today and little statistical information, such as changes in spending or growth. The report “certainly should still any doubts about the degree of effort that was under way, but whether people will be impressed by the results is another matter,” said Lenkowsky.

Hein cited three priorities for the remainder of his tenure:

Strengthening federal officials;Strengthening nonprofit leader skills; and,Expanding the country’s understanding of the initiative’s reach. “We’ll draw a lot of attention in the last year to the research that’s emerging on effectiveness and a clear sense of the needs that await us,” he said. “We’re proponents of research at large and contributors of research at unprecedented levels. Many of these questions that we’re exploring haven’t even been asked in previous administrations, so we’re excited about breaking ground and creating new understanding into what makes a successful government-nonprofit sector partnership,” he said.

There’s no doubt the next administration, regardless of party, will continue to work with faith-based and community groups, said Lenkowsky. Bush has operated mainly by executive orders because of an inability to get proposed changes through Congress. The next president, he said, is likely to revisit those orders and reorganize elements of White House operations, as presidents “are expected to do to put their own stamp on the administration.”

Some who were associated with the program have criticized the Bush administration for abandoning the faith-based initiative, said Lenkowksy, including former deputy director David Kuo and director John Dilulio. “This report shows pretty clearly that they did not abandon it. It may not have done everything that Kuo or Dilulio would’ve liked to see it do, but the administration has made a very good faith effort to fulfill the president’s promises during the 2000 campaign.”

Said Lenkowsky in a review of “Tempting Faith,” Kuo’s memoir about his tenure as deputy director: “Government’s not about making miracles, it’s about making slow progress in one direction or another, and I think that’s what this report tells you the Bush administration has done.


This article is from NPT Weekly, a publication of The NonProfit Times.

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