Faith Community Liaison: Suzanne Yack, Director, Compassion Florida, the Florida Faith-Based and Community Initiative, Governor's Volunteer Florida Foundation
Site Visit Dates: May 5-7, 2008
The Faith-Based and Community Initiative in Florida is housed in the private, nonprofit Volunteer Florida Foundation (VFF). The Governors Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, the organization that eventually gave rise to VFF, was established by executive order of Governor Lawton Chiles (D) in 1993. In response to the series of hurricanes that hit the state in 2004, Governor Jeb Bush (R) established a recovery fund within VFF, which heightened the profile of the FBCI, since FBCOs were seen as uniquely well-placed to respond quickly to the crisis. The FCL is the Director of the FBCI, within VFF. Our respondent, Suzanne Yack, took the position with VFF in 2006 and left in August 2008.
Following the 2004 establishment of the hurricane recovery fund within VFF, Governor Bush issued an executive order (#04-245) forming a Faith-Based and Community Advisory Board, whose purpose was to help state government coordinate efforts to utilize and expand opportunities for faith-based and community-based organizations to address social needs in Floridas communities. Bush also used the executive order to establish faith community liaisons within state agencies to reduce barriers faced by FBOs in their interactions with government. In 2006, Bushs last year in office, the Board was legally transformed into the Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council with the passage of a new law (#2006 IV.14.31). Although the statute includes a 2011 sunset provision, its language establishing the Council basically codifies the faith-based initiative in Florida. Because it was a result of the political process, respondents viewed the statute as critical to the legitimacy, authority, and sustainability of the faith-based initiative in Florida.
The Councils stated purpose, according to the statute, is to advise the Governor and the Legislature on policies, priorities, and objectives for the states comprehensive effort to enlist, equip, enable, empower, and expand the work of faith-based, volunteer, and other community organizations to the full extent permitted by law. The statute lists 12 key areas in which the Council is to advise the governor and legislature, including ways to increase public partnerships with FBCOs, as well as to ensure efficacy and accountability in such partnerships. The law also specifically prohibits any activities by the Council that would conflict with the federal Establishment Clause. The law states that 17 members are to be appointed by the governor, and four each by the speaker of the house and the president of the senate. The Council is required to meet at least once per quarter and to provide its recommendations to the governor and legislature in the form of an annual report. Under the law, the Council, whose members are uncompensated, is housed in the executive office of the governor. In practice, the FCL acts as administrator for the Council. Ms. Yacks past work with the chair of the Council (in disaster recovery) made this role a natural fit. With her departure, the VFF president has assumed the role.
Governor Charlie Crist, Floridas current governor, is a Republican and both houses of the legislature have large Republican majorities. There is currently a movement underway challenging the states strict constitutional language prohibiting state funds to FBOs and there have been lawsuits in the past around the use of public funds for religious education. While the state of Florida has a history of partnering with FBOs (Crew 2003), respondents close to VFF were sensitive to the fact that VFFs work with FBOs is limited to non-state funding sources. The budgetary environment has tightened in recent years, with estimates of a $1.5 billion short-fall in the coming year. The states population is quite diverse (about 20 percent Hispanic and 16 percent Black) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The largest denominational groups are Catholics (26 percent) and Baptists (18 percent); about 12 percent identify as no religion (Kusmin, Mayer, and Keysar, 2001).
The FCL is a full-time position, housed in the VFF, and reporting to its president. The VFFs stated mission is to strengthen Florida by meeting community and family needs through development of initiatives in volunteerism and community service, under the leadership of Governor Charlie Crist and the Governors Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, according to its website. The president/CEO of VFF pointed to the FCLs role as liaison between the Advisory Council, the governor, and VFF as a key responsibility. Ms. Yack identified her own central roles with the FBCI and Compassion Florida as providing technical assistance to FBCOs, establishing learning communities for FBCOs (through a series of roundtables), and connecting FBCOs to funding, media, experts, and foundations.
The position is the only personnel line in VFF that is dedicated exclusively to the FBCI, though in the past the VFF president essentially functioned as the FCL. Ms. Yack began at the foundation in the disaster recovery program, but her main duties after assuming responsibility of the FBCI related to the administration of the Compassion Florida program. Compassion Florida is funded through a three-year $500,000 per year Compassion Capital Demonstration Grant awarded in 2007 to VFF and its partners at the Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University. After preparing the application and receiving the grant, Ms. Yacks work with Compassion Florida included planning and hosting a regular series of workshops and roundtables at five regional centers around the state: Orlando, Tampa, Leesburg, Port St. Lucie, and Tallahassee (see details below). The grant also allows VFF to make about 20 mini-grants per year, ranging from $2,000 to $20,000 each, in 2008 and 2009.
VFF underwent structural changes in 2008, with some responsibilities spinning off to other organizations. The FCL role would have remained relatively unaffected, at least for the term of the Compassion Capital grant, but with Ms. Yacks departure, responsibility for Compassion Florida and the FBCI shifted to the VFF president/CEO, at least until appointment of a new FCL.
Before coming to VFF, Ms. Yack worked for an interfaith community development nonprofit and spent a great deal of time in the field among community groups, lending her legitimacy (or street cred in her words) among FBCOs. She also drew on a journalism background, which informed her work in helping FBCOs with telling their story through press releases and other marketing strategies.
During her tenure as FCL, Ms. Yack focused largely on building the capacity of small FBCOs. Toward this end, and as part of Compassion Florida (the CCF program), she organized a series of regional events for developing organizational capacity and sustainability. These included workshops, with general topics for larger audiences, and roundtables, focusing on specific topics for smaller groups of selected applicants. Topics for these events included accessing public and private grants, fundraising, publicity, board development, and legal issues for nonprofits. Workshops were intended as an introduction to issues surrounding the FBCI. The roundtables were designed to include the same participants over time, forming learning communities where FBCO leaders could make connections, collaborate, and solve problems together. Ms. Yack also maintained an active listserv, where she shared information on these activities, as well as grant opportunities and events of interest to the FBCO audience. Finally, she spent a great deal of time on the road, visiting FBCOs in their communities and providing small group or one-on-one support and technical assistance.
As noted above, in addition to running Compassion Florida, Ms. Yack was responsible for administrative work with the Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council. Her role involved keeping the Councils work in line with the states sunshine laws (for example, posting public notice of meetings and reminding members of pertinent regulations). Where appropriate, Ms. Yacks functions with the Council also included acting on their advice. For example, in 2007 the Council recommended that VFF and Compassion Florida take the lead in efforts to inform nonprofits about funding opportunities with state agencies. Similarly, in their 2008 report to the governor and the legislature, the Council recommended that Compassion Florida continue to be the focus of their Education and Evaluation subcommittee, and that they continue to study public agencies as they create greater transparency and openness to social service providers in the faith-based and community-based sector. Since the FCL position resides in a quasi-independent nonprofit, there are no formal ties between the FCL and the various state agencies, but the Councils recommendations do, nonetheless, carry some authority and the FCL and agency representatives have worked together.
With respect to Charitable Choice and equal treatment rules and regulations, Ms. Yack provided one-on-one or small group assistance to FBOs. Her methods typically involved interactive discussions of concrete examples of appropriate and inappropriate activities. Inreach to agencies followed the suggestion of the Advisory Council and focused on reducing barriers to FBO participation. One important step in this direction has been getting agencies to post funding opportunities to an online portal called My Florida Marketplace, as well as showing FBOs how to access it.
An important issue-specific focus of the Florida FCL (and VFF) is around disaster relief. Indeed, Ms. Yacks prior work at an FBO, where she developed a virtual warehouse to support hurricane recovery, led to her hiring by VFF. Before taking over the FBCI, she worked on disaster programming, adapting the virtual warehouse model for VFF. The VFF virtual warehouse became known as Neighbors to the Rescue and is designed to be activated during disasters using vetted volunteers, mainly from FBCOs, to locate and distribute donated items during times of crisis.
The FCL pointed to the Roundtables as her greatest success, citing specifically that FBCOs had been able to develop relationships and gain access to wealth, media, experts, and foundations as a result of them. At the same time, however, she cited consistent attendance at workshops and roundtables as a challenge, and pointed to geographic mismatches between FBCOs requiring assistance and available expertise or resources. Another major challenge cited by the FCL, as well as other respondents, was the lack of capacity of small FBCOs, which requires the FCL to do a lot of hand holding, sometimes acting almost as a counselor, in the words of one respondent. The FCL and others cited the credibility of small organizations as a challenge, noting that agencies and other funders are sometimes suspicious of their sectarian affiliations and/or do not view them as sufficiently professional.
Respondents pointed to two key lessons from Florida. First, linkages to the governor can have both positive and negative consequences i.e., they bring authority to the initiative, but can politicize the FCLs work. If, however, the governor is not viewed as standing behind the initiative, the rest of the state (agencies, especially) may be reluctant to support it. Related to this, two respondents felt that it was important to codify the initiative through legislation. One asserted that it is best to have a dedicated FCL position, staffed by a dynamic individual, not just another bureaucrat (a sentiment expressed in several sites), who knows how to interact with both FBOs and CBOs. This individual also needs to have the authority to make decisions running by committee is, according to the FCL, not a good way to operate in this field since agreement can be hard to reach.