Faith Community Liaison: Sydney Hoffman, Director, Governors Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
Site Visit Dates: May 5-7, 2008
The Alabama Governors Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (GFBCI) was established by executive order in June 2004 by Governor Bob Riley (R). Hurricane Ivan hit in September 2004, followed a year later by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; these disasters sharpened the offices focus on emergency management and preparedness, and activated and supported the FBCO sector to provide essential social services.
The GFBCI was established through Executive Order #21. It changed the name of the Governors Office on National and Community Service to the GFBCI and subsumed AmeriCorps and other national service, volunteer, and disaster preparedness and relief programs into it. It also established a gubernatorially appointed Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives as a subset of the Alabama Commission on National and Community Service to provide advice to the commission and governor. In addition, it established an interagency Advisory Board on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives whose members are the heads of eight major public agencies whose functions are most likely to be covered by Charitable Choice and equal treatment principles. The executive order mandates the board to cause the provisions of this order to be implemented by all appropriate agencies of state government, and further directs all state agencies to cooperate fully with the office and the board in implementing the faith-based and community initiative in the state, citing among other reasons the Charitable Choice provisions of PRWORA.
Governor Riley, whose term ends in 2010, has been a strong champion of the FCLs work. Although the legislature is controlled by Democrats, the Alabama political and legal environment is said to be generally supportive of the initiative and the role of FBOs in provision of services; there appears to have been little controversy surrounding the GFBCI. Faith orientation is said to be very strong in the state, and Sydney Hoffman, the GFBCI director, suggested that support for the initiative is generally bipartisan because it is widely recognized there is not enough public money for services. Office staff indicate, however, that they are aware of the possibility of legal challenge if they or individual FBOs cross church-state lines, however unintentionally.
The state is predominantly Protestant, with Baptists making up 37 percent of the population and Methodists 9 percent. Thirteen percent of residents are Catholic, and about 1 percent each are Jewish and Mormon/LDS. Muslims compose less than 1 percent of the population (Kusmin, Mayer, and Keysar, 2001). Ethnically, Alabama is predominantly White (69 percent) and Black (26 percent), and it has the second-lowest per capita income among the 50 states (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The state has seen an influx of new jobs in recent years, however, with the arrival of several foreign-owned manufacturing plants.
The formal mission of the office, according to its website, is to increase: (1) an ethic of service and volunteerism in the State of Alabama, (2) the capacity of faith-based and community organizations within the state to better compete for funding opportunities and (3) the collaboration among the people and organizations that are trying to meet the greatest needs of our state. The staff noted that they: work to foster and coordinate relationships between public agencies and FBCOs, do training and present at conferences (with lots of event planning), administer the state AmeriCorps program, work with the state Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to prepare Alabama citizens for and respond to disaster, and manage the statewide Citizen Corps Council (CCC). The director chairs the State Interagency Council on Homelessness (established by executive order in 2005), and the GFBCI staffs it. The director also acts as liaison with the White House OFBCI, offers expertise about FBCO issues to public agencies and others, and responds to requests from the governor.
The GFBCI director and her staff are appointed by the governor and the director reports to the governors chief of staff. Ms. Hoffman is considered senior staff to the governor and participates in human services and public safety cabinet meetings; she also chairs the interagency FBCI advisory board. The separate FBCI advisory council serves in an advisory role to the GFBCIs work; the councils members like the director are gubernatorial appointees. The GFBCI also has a close relationship to the state Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which funds some of its activities. The state service commission, established through federal statute (the National and Community Service Act of 1990), serves as the effective board for the GFBCI consistent with the Executive Order 21. It has statutory authority over AmeriCorps and advises on all other aspects of the office.
The GFBCIs main functions emergency management, the FBCI, management of AmeriCorps, mentoring initiatives, and volunteer and donations management are integrated, making it difficult to separate staff and resources dedicated to the FBCI. The office budget is about $750,000 for FY08. The total staff is nine full-time positions, plus about four AmeriCorps volunteers each year. Another state agency acts as the GFBCIs fiscal agent. According to the director, resources and support for the office have remained fairly consistent since its founding, although specific funding sources and activities have changed over time in response to events such as the hurricanes and acquisition of new responsibilities such as the Homelessness Council.
Ms. Hoffman came to the GFBCI in 2004 as director of the CCC program, the US Department of Homeland Security-sponsored, locally focused disaster preparation and relief program. Prior to that, her background was in nursing. When the previous director of the GFBCI left in 2005, Ms. Hoffman came on as acting director and then was appointed permanently in August 2006. The backgrounds of the staff include public health and AmeriCorps.
The office undertakes a number of general outreach and training/capacity-building activities aimed at FBOs and the FBCO community more generally. These include a biweekly email newsletter, identifying federal, state, local, and private (both corporate and foundation) funding opportunities, as well as information on available training and TA activities. The GFBCI also offers quarterly nonprofit capacity-building workshops and an annual Governors volunteer leadership conference, and sponsored a June 2008 FBCO summit, which brought together FBCOs to discuss effective strategies and next steps. The GFBCI website has links to funding information and guidance on Charitable Choice. The staff noted that a key goal is to keep events and seminars free or low-cost, and they are generally offered in Montgomery, the capital, because it is centrally located (and is also the GFBCIs home). As of spring 2008, the office planned to recruit a new VISTA volunteer to go on the road to offer outreach and training.
The GFBCIs quarterly workshops last a half day and largely address organizational basics since staff indicated there is still a strong need for the 101 version of training. The goal is generally to get organizations to ask themselves key questions about board development, management, and financial accountability, among other topics. Organizations are referred to the Nonprofit Resource Center of Alabama (NRCA), a Birmingham-based intermediary with offices around the state, and federal agency websites and materials for further capacity building information. Materials distributed at these workshops and events, and to organizations or individuals requesting additional information, include an array of materials emphasizing both the rights of FBOs and the responsibilities to protect applicants and clients religious freedom. These include: Charitable Choice 101 An Introduction, by Stanley Carlson-Thies of the Center for Public Justice (CPJ); Overview of the HHS Equal Treatment Regulations, also from CPJ; a Brief Dos and Donts handout focused on Charitable Choice and equal treatment rights and responsibilities; and Is Your Faith-Based Organization Ready to Partner with Government? A Decision-Making Checklist with Tips for Preparedness. Information packets also include a copy of President Bushs 2002 Executive Order extending equal treatment to all federal social service programs, federal guidance documents, and a list of faith-based web resource sites. The events also include presentations and handouts about essential elements of Charitable Choice and equal treatment principles, such as the federal focus on barrier identification and elimination, and dos and donts for individual organizations. They stress the need for FBCOs to possess basic organizational capacity in order to be ready partners.
In addition to working with FBCOs on Charitable Choice and capacity building more broadly, the GFBCI has worked with public agencies. Executive Order 21 explicitly requires all state agencies affected by Charitable Choice to 1) Make all necessary changes to actively engage in collaborative efforts (in the form of contracts, grants, vouchers, or other forms of disbursements, or volunteer programs) with faith-based organizations for the provision of social services on the same basis as other non-governmental providers, using neutral criteria that neither favors nor disfavors religion, to the fullest extent permitted under the law; and 2) Take all necessary steps to implement the Charitable Choice provisions of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, the Welfare-to-Work Grant Program, the Community Services Block Grant Program, the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act, and any current or future legislation adopting a Charitable Choice provision; and 3) Take affirmative steps prescribed by the Charitable Choice provision of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act to respect the religious integrity and the functional autonomy of participating faith-based social service providers and the religious freedom of their beneficiaries. Further, the interagency Faith-Based Advisory Board, which Ms. Hoffman chairs, gives her additional opportunity to educate these state agencies and leverage their implementation of Charitable Choice, as does her regular attendance at the governors cabinet meetings and the governors personal commitment to the faith-based initiative and implementation of Charitable Choice.
The GFBCI has sought to build relationships with several intermediary organizations, in particular NRCA and Alabama Community Foundations. Groups that could benefit from more advanced capacity building than the GFBCI staff feel equipped to provide may be referred to NRCA for assistance. Ms. Hoffman also suggested that strengthening partnerships with these groups and their ability to aid FBCOs can help with long-term sustainability of the GFBCIs mission; even if support for the office declines in the future with political transition, these groups can continue to provide capacity-building services and other supports to FBCOs.
Administration of the states AmeriCorps program and grantee management are a major emphasis of the GFBCI. Since Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina, the integration of the states FBCO and volunteer communities (the boots on the ground, in the words of one public agency partner) into public emergency preparedness and response activities has also been a key focus. The office manages DHS grants to Alabama CCCs, manages grants and training related to community emergency response and long-term recovery, runs its own VISTA disaster response and recovery team, and works with DHS to develop and manage a range of Be Ready Alabama activities to help citizens prepare for disasters. Finally, when the governor declares an emergency, the GFBCI flips and becomes an operational center for managing volunteers and donations. In case of disaster, the office becomes the Volunteer and Donation Management Coordinator for the state, is the lead agency at the State Emergency Operations Center for management of volunteers and donations, and maintains a call center for this purpose.
Other issue-specific activities include staffing of the interagency homelessness council (including development of a recent statewide data report on homelessness in Alabama) and a new high school drop-out prevention partnership with the state education department to cultivate mentors for at-risk students. In addition, the GFBCI has an unfunded consulting relationship with the state Department of Corrections for which the director is offering advice on partnering with FBOs and has brought in Prof. Robert Tuttle of George Washington University law school and the Pew Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy to help ensure that a developing prisoner reentry initiative with a residential component does not run afoul of the law.
The GFBCI has not undertaken systematic assessment of the extent to which state FBCOs or state agencies specifically understand Charitable Choice rights and requirements and/or are following them. Staff note that they give significant attention to these issues in training and TA sessions, providing concrete time and space examples to stress the importance of the limits on FBOs practices. But they also note that they are not lawyers and that FBOs should be very careful and consult legal experts before moving forward into gray areas. They indicate that there are still small FBOs that do not fully understand the limits on religious activities that Charitable Choice requires; staff tends to encourage small organizations first to build their basic capacity and understanding of the complexity of federal requirements before pursuing federal grants. In addition, staff and leadership encourage FBCOs to gain 501(c)(3) tax status if they are going to participate in public funding, both because it indicates a level of capacity and for the organizations own protection. The office does monitor its own grantees for compliance with service and financial accounting requirements, and has greatly improved the CNCS-required AmeriCorps standards review for that program.
Successes, Challenges, and Lessons Learned
The FCL cited as one major source of success the structure of the GFBCI within the governors office and the relationships it has allowed her to develop. These, Ms. Hoffman said, give the director access to all the pieces necessary to convene and move action forward on key state issues. Inreach to state agencies appears to be very much facilitated by fact that the director is so frequently at the table with other agencies and others in the governors office.
Respondents highlighted as a major success the ultimate results of the response to Hurricane Katrina, which one called a crucible; ultimately, the GFBCI and its partners felt they had succeeded in developing far better planning and response systems for future disasters. The GFBCI can now stand up and stand down thousands of volunteers, noted one staff member. Respondents also cited the Be Ready Alabama campaign, AmeriCorps program improvements, and GFBCIs staff work on the homelessness council, including development of the homelessness databook. FBCO respondents noted a high level of staff accessibility, creativity, and responsiveness. One GFBCI staff member suggested a legacy of the office would be as a great convener were seen as neutral, people trust us.
Respondents identified several challenges, as well. Some FBOs are fundamentally reluctant to partner with government, and initially many held the misconception that there would be dedicated new money. The future sustainability of the GFBCI in its current form may be uncertain even in a generally supportive environment, turnover in the governors office could bring significant changes. A patchwork of funding sources and limited staff make it difficult to address all the issues the office would like. Finally, the states location leaves it consistently vulnerable to natural disasters.
The director and other respondents emphasized several lessons. Being part of the governors office can facilitate agency and local cooperation and give the office authority, but while the director may be focused on the capitol, the staff needs to be focused on the grassroots. Collaborating with both state agencies and large nonprofits can help leverage more resources for the FBCO community and the initiative. Hiring good staff who come to the table and stay at the table can help to build and maintain credibility with sometimes skeptical partners. And the office and its priorities must be tailored to the states particular needs in Alabama, FBOs, CBOs, and their volunteers can be an important combat multiplier during natural disasters.