Faith Community Liaison: Reverend Fred Nettles, Director, Partners For Hope, Illinois Department of Human Services
Site Visit Dates: June 3-4, 2008
Illinois is unique among the sites selected for this study in that there is no centralized formal faith-based initiative and no single state-level office dedicated specifically to partnerships with faith-based and/or community organizations. Within the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS), however, there is a comparable initiative in a program called Partners for Hope (PFH). IDHS initiated PFH in 1996 in anticipation of welfare reform and with the perception that FBOs would have increased access to resources and be asked to play an expanded role in service delivery. PFH was established to facilitate agency linkages with faith communities (with an emphasis on churches) and to coordinate services for families moving from welfare to work. PFH was not established by executive order or statute, but rather was an initiative of the departmental leadership. Reverend Fred Nettles is the Director of PFH and was our key respondent in Illinois.
The socioeconomic and political context in Illinois does seem to have influenced the evolution of Rev. Nettles work with PFH. The program was established under a Republican governor, George Ryan, who was not involved in the program but was perceived as generally friendly to it. When Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich took office in 2002, the state faced a significant budgetary short-fall, which led to large IDHS staff cuts (some 20 percent, according to Rev. Nettles). At the same time, Blagojevich was not involved with PFH , but established a similar initiative, Team Illinois (detailed below). Over time, the bulk of Rev. Nettles work has shifted from PFH to Team Illinois, although he cites his PFH work as providing entrée into communities for Team Illinois.
While both houses of the state legislature have Democratic majorities, there has been conflict within the party in recent years. Moreover, there is an historical tension between the northern part of the state (Chicago and its suburbs) and the more rural, less affluent south (downstate). Illinois is ethnically diverse, with Blacks and Hispanics each making up about 15 percent of the population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The largest denominational groups in the state include Roman Catholics (29 percent) and Baptists (11 percent); a relatively large number (15 percent) identify as having no religious denomination (Kusmin, Mayer, and Keysar, 2001).
PFH is a non-fiduciary partnership between IDHS local offices and faith communities. It was established in 1996 with a mission to help individuals and families become and stay self-sufficient and reach their maximum level of independence, (according to the programs website). Over time, Rev. Nettles reports that the mission has evolved to focus more specifically on capacity building, and the official mission now is to develop capacity among faith-based organizations to support families in their communities who are trying to achieve self-sufficiency. The program brings together a host of public and private service providers in communities around the state to offer, in essence, wrap-around services, addressing whatever needs might exist among individuals and families in the community who are eligible for public assistance. It is described on the IDHS website as an interfaith welfare-to-work initiative, but individuals need not be on welfare to receive services from participating organizations.
Rev. Nettles is currently the only IDHS employee specifically charged with PFH duties, although local IDHS officers also work to partner with FBCOs. There is no formal relationship between the PFH director and these other IDHS employees, although they do communicate. PFH was originally housed in the Division of Community Operations, but is now under the Office of Strategic Planning, which Rev. Nettles cites as useful since it provides access to all IDHS divisions (Human Capital Development, Alcohol and Substance Abuse, Developmental Disabilities, Mental Health, and Rehabilitation Services). Rev. Nettles is a full-time IDHS employee, but has few state resources beyond his salary and general operational support; he relies instead on a large network of church contacts and in-kind contributions from the faith community to facilitate his work (for instance, by hosting meetings and providing refreshments). Rev. Nettles applied for a CCF grant the first year of PFH, but did not receive one.
As noted above, Rev. Nettles formal duties have evolved over time, focusing less on PFH and more on Team Illinois responsibilities. In both cases, however, his formal role has been to foster relationships between FBCOs and local IDHS and other agency offices. He also cites capacity building as a major role. Less formally, he has placed great emphasis on connecting FBOs to each other. He believes he is well placed to make such connections, in particular because he is pastor of Living Word Fellowship Ministries in Springfield. In fact, he reports that he was chosen to direct PFH precisely because he was a minister. When he joined the program, there were only about 150 FBOs involved, but he noted that he quickly brought that number above 2,000. Rev. Nettles maintains an Excel database with information on about 800 of these groups, which he shares with agencies or others who request it. He says that his work as a pastor allows him to understand and communicate with FBOs. At the same time, as a state employee, he understands the bureaucracy and can translate between agencies and FBOs. Prior to his work as director of PFH, Rev. Nettles had worked in a supervisory position in IDHS facilities. Before that he had served in the US Air Force, where he worked in human resources, which allowed him to obtain an MPA. He was brought up Catholic, but left the church until he met his wife and became a born-again Christian.
Currently, Rev. Nettles devotes the large majority of his time (about 80 percent) to work with Governor Blagojevichs Team Illinois initiative. The Team Illinois program is similar to PFH, insofar as it targets FBOs, but the approach is different. Team Illinois was designed to bring integrated state agency services to a specific group of communities identified as having the greatest needs. IDHS is the lead agency in this effort, but representatives from other agencies also serve as Team Illinois liaisons to some communities. Rev. Nettles is the Team Illinois liaison for two of the communities targeted for services, which requires that he spend time visiting the communities, assessing needs, and coordinating with public and private sector service providers there. Beyond this, he sees his role as promoting cross-pollinization among FBOs around broad community development issues. Toward this end, he has arranged for some of the particularly active groups and individuals to meet with others around the state.
In terms of capacity building, Rev. Nettles has worked with other IDHS departments (especially the Office of Grants Administration) to work with FBOs on program development, staffing, board development, and other legal or tax issues. These sessions have been as small as five people and as large as 200 or 300. Typically, Rev. Nettles arranges these in response to requests from faith groups and they are often tied to their conventions or convocations. He also uses his own church as a forum for offering such events; for example, he once invited a guest speaker on community development corporations and used the PFH database to broadcast an invitation.
Rev. Nettles has included the topic of Charitable Choice opportunities and requirements in past presentations around the state and he fields questions about it from both agencies and FBOs. Multiple respondents in Illinois emphasized that wherever public funds are involved (as in agency contracts with FBCOs), IDHS includes all the dos and donts of Charitable Choice in their contractual language.
Rev. Nettles cited the expansion of the IDHS database of FBO contacts, from around 150 to nearly 2,500 organizations, as one of his greatest successes. He also felt that he had been instrumental in connecting FBOs to each other, especially around broad community development projects. Other IDHS employees felt that the department had been successful in mending fences with FBOs in communities around the state where government agencies are often viewed with suspicion. Many respondents, including Rev. Nettles, cited resource constraints as a major challenge. Major budget cuts have left Rev. Nettles and IDHS as a whole with the same amount of work (or more), but with far fewer resources to get it done. Related to this, Rev. Nettles notes that Illinois is a large state, and it is difficult for one individual to cover all the communities in need. An additional challenge that was specifically cited by one IDHS employee, and reflected in comments by Rev. Nettles and FBO representatives, was a sense of entitlement to public funding that appeared among some FBOs after welfare reform, and initial misperceptions about the availability of specifically faith-based money.
A number of lessons emerged from Illinois, some of which are similar to those from other sites. Rev. Nettles emphasized that it is important to discourage the perception of a bureaucrat in an office expecting people to come to you. For the initiative to be successful, the FCL has to actively engage the faith community. This includes being a caring person, he said, who understands the nuances and can speak their language and translate government language for FBCOs. Rev. Nettles also asserted (and IDHS respondents echoed this) that if one can reach out and develop a trusting relationship with FBOs, they will actually contribute many in-kind resources, although this requires active outreach with the onus on the FCL. In contrast, according to Rev. Nettles, FBOs will only come to you if you have money. Finally, Rev. Nettles suggested that the broader faith-based initiatives around the nation have opened doors to unscrupulous individuals or groups e.g., contractors, grant writers, etc. who might seek to take advantage of faith-based organizations. He felt that it is important to have vetted experts to whom FCLs can refer FBOs for specialized assistance.