Faith-Based Nonprofit Funds: Presto Change-o

Rick Cohen explores the faith-based federal funds initiative launched by President Bush and revamped by President Obama.

Faith-Based Nonprofit Funds: Presto Change-o
8 mins read

How faith-based nonprofits’ relationship with the federal government will change under the Obama administration.

In a nutshell, like Bush’s program, Obama’s faith-based program welcomes congregations and religious organizations in discussions and promotion of the social policies of his administration.

But unlike the Bush program, Obama’s initiative does not direct money to faith-based groups. Rather than a grantmaking program for faith-based organizations, federal moneys with a faith-based “flavor” are hidden in pockets throughout the Obama budget — but you have to know where to look for them.

Bush’s faith-based money

At face value, President Bush believed that faith-based groups — particularly small, church-based ones — had been largely excluded from access to federal program dollars. His solution? The creation of the Compassion Capital Fund (CCF) to pump money into the faith-based sector to promote local, grassroots efforts in human services.

The Bush program was mired in controversy for its entire existence: critics charged that it was a pretext for funding conservative religious bodies. High-level Bush appointees resigned while publishing scathing critiques of the program. But the CCF did put money into capacity-building intermediaries and into a variety of local faith-oriented and community-based nonprofits. [Click here for Rick’s 2006 article on the Faith-Based Initiative.]

And the money did seem to make a difference. Evaluations conducted by the consulting firm Abt Associates and others attested that many organizations benefitted from the capacity-building work, but perhaps even more so from subgrants.

So despite the confusing semantics and controversial politics of the Bush program, and despite the usual criticisms about relying on intermediaries to funnel federal grants and assistance, the Bush program did put money into the budgets of FBOs-and some of them took advantage of it to build capacity, professionalize, and do good work. Real money counts.

Where is the money under Obama?

In sharp contrast, there will be no special program of faith-based grantmaking coming from the Obama Administration’s Faith-Based Office, which intends to measure success by building “partnerships” rather than counting grant dollars.

As the new director of the Office, Pentecostal minister Joshua DuBois told National Public Radio, “The Faith-Based Office actually does not do grant funding… Instead, we tell organizations where the grants are and let them know what they need to do to apply for them.” For “both secular and religious organizations that are experiencing tough financial times,” he said, “we’re just sort of pointing them in the right direction.”

In other words, there is money in the federal budget for faith-based applicants, but they’ll need a treasure map to find it:

First, there’s the leftover Compassion Capital Fund dollars. The Fiscal Year 2009 budget allocated $53 million for the CCF. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in Health and Human Services will announce an anticipated 35 grant awards for a total of $17 million in CCF funding in October — it’s not clear yet what happened to the other $36 million in the CCF budget.

[An intriguing political nugget: tucked away in the new CCF RFP is the note that CCF grantees from the Bush era — even if hardly Bushies — will not be in the running. Because “CCF aims to fund a broad range of organizations and program models… Fiscal Year (FY) 2007 CCF Demonstration program grantees and FY 2007 Communities Empowering Youth (CEY) grantees… are not eligible to apply for a 2009 CCF Demonstration program award.” ]

Compassionate Capital replaced by Strengthening Communities Fund

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives tried to refill the CCF coffers with  $100 million, but the Senate balked. Instead, with the approval of the Obama White

House, Congress replaced CCF with a new program, the Strengthening Communities Fund, and gave it $50 million. The two-part program is not targeted at FBOs by any stretch of the imagination although they are not excluded either. The SCF includes $34 million for “Nonprofit Capacity Building” and $12 million for State, Local and Tribal Government Capacity Building” (plus $4 million for evaluation, R&D, and whatnot).

SCF grants will be announced shortly, as the due date for proposals was just last month (July 2009). Because the money moves to and through intermediaries, like the Social Innovation Fund we profiled in August, nonprofits should be prepared to mine the list of grantees on the HHS website to find subgrant and technical assistance opportunities.

Faith-based funding through issue areas

The President has established issue priorities for the faith-based office:

  • Reducing “unintended” teenage pregnancies and the need for abortions
  • Encouraging responsible fatherhood
  • Addressing domestic poverty and contributing to the economic recovery
  • Environment and climate change
  • Global poverty and development
  • Encouraging interfaith dialogue

Sharp-eyed budget readers will find federal programs in the Obama budget based on or heavily involving faith-based groups, including:

  • The Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (Department of Labor) makes grants to nonprofits to operate employment programs for homeless veterans, and references the role of faith-based groups.
  • Youth Mentoring funding (Department of Justice) is targeted at “faith- and community-based nonprofit and for-profit agencies.” Other DOJ programs with similar language include Local Delinquency Prevention Incentive grants (for comprehensive juvenile justice programs) and Byrne Competitive Grants (to assist victims of crime) — and in fact, lots of Office of Justice Programs initiatives in addressing gang activity, illegal drugs, prisoner reentry, and more.
  • At HUD, the welcome mat is out for faith-based groups at the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program for the 10% of the moneys awarded competitively for “projects of national significance.” Aiming at a related population, HHS includes faith-based groups in the mix for its programs for infants and children abandoned due to substance abuse and HIV.

The bottom line for faith-based nonprofits? In an interview with Blue Avocado, one member of the faith-based advisory committee noted, “If their programs deal with one of those areas, they’re going to have a chance of accessing funding.”

Faith-based and neighborhood offices embedded in other federal agencies

Within 12 federal agencies — HUD, HHS, Labor, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Justice, for example — there are designated faith-based and neighborhood partnership offices to help faith-based (and secular) groups overcome barriers to obtaining federal moneys.

They may not have their own dollars to disburse, but they know where faith-based groups ought to look. Community nonprofits already working in these issue areas should seek out these offices through the agency’s regional networks or through their elected congressional representatives.

In the end, the Bush Administration’s faith-based program was hampered by murky politics and by  charges and countercharges that it was funneling grant moneys away from various federal agencies to buy political support from the religious sector. The Obama Administration pledges to use a different metric: counting not grant dollars to the faith-based sector, but measuring the strength of partnerships between government and faith-based and secular groups addressing high priority concerns.

In our view, money talks and partnerships… well, usually don’t. The challenge for the Obama Administration is to ensure that its commitment to partnerships is accompanied by real dollars to build and sustain faith-based and secular organizations, particularly the smaller, community-based groups, so that they too become capable and credible players in those partnerships. And the challenge for nonprofits and our national organizations is to make sure that those dollars and those impacts really happen.

About the Author

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Rick Cohen‘s investigative reporting appears in every other issue of Blue Avocado. His articles on the Decline & Fall of the Vanguard Foundation recently won a Min Award for journalism. A memory from his days as Director of Housing and Economic Development for an unnamed city in New Jersey includes giving a conference speech in Atlantic City on real etate tax abatements, and then playing blackjack at the “cheapo $5 table” the rest of the day while waiting for the mayor so they could go home.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

5 thoughts on “Faith-Based Nonprofit Funds: Presto Change-o

  1. Just the term "faith-based" turns me off….but Rick’s article explained for me in an engaging way  how government funding of anything works in the real world. What a rat-maze.   No wonder nonprofits shy away from that funding if they can somehow manage otherwise.

  2. Lots of things in government do work, so I’d be cautious about the blanket judgment. However, you are quite right to raise questions about the relationship of government and nonprofits, regardless of the administration, regarding who uses whom. It is important to think about the various agendas of the players, sometimes relating to getting money out to groups to get things done, sometimes relating to getting groups symbolically or substantively to convey some sort of political or ideological message, and sometimes a mix of the two. It is important for groups to think about what they’re getting and what they’re giving in the dynamic. And a big part of that is making sure that groups do not give up their crucial advocacy voice on behalf of the constituents and communities they serve in the process of participating in the delivery of government programs or engagement in government-related partnerships.

  3. Rick,
    How DO you do it? that was a terrific article, and will help a lot of us out here in the trenches. And your anonymous piece is a powerful reminder not to go quiet, not to stop the advocacy.
    And thanks to the Blue Avocado for inviting you to write.
    Susan Christian

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