Role of State Faith Community Liaisons in Charitable Choice Implementation. Major Study Conclusions


The FBCI and the FCLs formal role in advancing it have been emphasized in different ways and to substantially different degrees across the 50 states.

Thirty-six of the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) and some cities appear to have some formal FCL function. The function is generally authorized by executive order (in 13 of the 36 states), by statute (in three of the 36), or by some other type of administrative action (in the remaining states). Just under half of the 36 states with formal FCLs house them in governors offices and most of the rest locate them in state agencies. In three states, however, FCL functions are located in nonprofit organizations. FCLs perform the functions in a mix of full-time (in about half the states) and part-time positions, although FCLs often juggle responsibilities in addition to the FBCI. Several states appear to be moving the initiative forward without a formally designated FCL. In just over half of the 36 states with formal FCLs, the study team found evidence of a relatively high level of engagement or investment in the function or progress in some aspect of Charitable Choice implementation.

Study respondents generally saw the FBCI and Charitable Choice as entailing three major elements: (1) development of partnerships with and within the FBCO sector, especially with FBOs; (2) development of the capacity of FBCOs; and (3) education about Charitable Choice regulations and equal treatment principles.

All FCLs in the eight study sites focused on capacity building and various types of partnerships with both FBOs and CBOs, and all showed evidence of success. Some focused more strongly on education about and implementation of Charitable Choice regulations while others focused more on partnerships and capacity building. The reasons for this variation among states included the developmental stage of the FBCI and of the FCL function, their legal and political contexts, and their resources.

By the time of the study, the sites were focusing most on addressing pressing social problems, working with FBOs and CBOs as important partners. Emphasis on this was generally somewhat stronger than emphasis on outreach to newly eligible FBOs and their greater inclusion in the work of government. Several sites emphasized both, but all emphasized the first.

Particularly in the sites that developed an FCL function relatively early, the focus appears to have evolved from an effort targeting FBOs and reducing barriers to partnering with them, to an effort emphasizing FBCOs more broadly, sometimes embracing the nonprofit sector as a whole.

While they stressed a continued welcome to FBOs, FCLs in these sites seemed to feel that a foundation for Charitable Choice implementation had been built (at least to some extent), and some also cited strategic decisions to widen reach to FBCOs and the broader nonprofit sector. Several respondents in both early- and later-adopting sites suggested that this balancing of emphases also reflected the evolution of the White House OFBCIs approach. One FCL staffer said that the then-director had helped put the community back in the FBCI. In addition, several FBCO respondents noted the difficulty of trying to neatly define organizations as either faith-based or secular, saying that they themselves self-defined as different kinds of organizations for different purposes.

The FCLs in the study worked to facilitate partnerships of many types.

Some partnerships were funded grants or contracts with state agencies (including the FCL office itself), using state or federal funds. FCLs also worked to facilitate unfunded partnerships or collaborations between public agencies and FBCOs; most FCLs made substantial efforts to connect these entities for informal relationships. Many sites also saw an important role for themselves in facilitating unfunded and even funded partnerships within the FBCO sector and between FBCOs and other private organizations. This linking function was regarded as an important goal of several of the formal FCL-sponsored capacity-building programs that sought to help participants share ideas and resources and establish lasting relationships. Most FCLs said they made a particular effort to reach out to faith-based organizations to let them know about partnering opportunities of different types.

In their own formal grantmaking or contracting, FCLs said they generally worked with FBOs and CBOs similarly. One staff member stressed that Charitable Choice was about opening up access and leveling the playing field, and not affirmative action for FBOs. Across the case-study states we found broad support for greater FBO involvement in partnerships with government agencies. This support did not appear to be strongly associated with political party, either across states or within individual states over time. It was within these contexts that the FCLs worked to establish partnerships.

Capacity building was viewed as a key need, and considerable resources were invested in it.

All the FCLs considered capacity building to be important for FBCOs, and many saw it as a necessary first step for the small FBOs that were a major focus of Charitable Choice; they invested considerable energy in helping to build this capacity. A wide range of respondents indicated that the FCLs had succeeded well with it. Some undertook comprehensive, multiphase programs that included training, TA, and small grants (aided by CCF demonstration grants in two cases). All offered individual workshops and/or one-on-one TA. In general, the FCLs and their staff and capacity-building partners reported that they worked similarly with FBOs and CBOs to develop their capacity, viewing their basic needs as generally more similar than different.

At the same time, small FBOs were sometimes described as particularly vulnerable and were said to consist at times of a single paid staff member. All FCLs worked with small FBOs through formal programs or individualized TA. Lacking basic organizational capacity, small FBOs were viewed as running the risk of unintentionally crossing church-state lines or failing to meet the financial or service requirements of government grants or contracts (small CBOs, of course, could also face challenges meeting financial and service requirements). One FCL called federal funds expensive money for these groups, and an FBO respondent spoke passionately about the challenges for small churches or other small FBOs of mastering OMB circulars and other requirements of government grants or contracts.

This concern about FBO capacity led several FCLs, their staff, and intermediary partners to say that they generally encouraged these small organizations to establish a 501(c)(3) and gain a greater degree of organizational capacity before pursuing government funds. These respondents viewed attainment of 501(c)(3) tax status as a threshold indicating a basic level of organizational development and providing some level of protection from government scrutiny of the organizations finances or other potential legal problems. Nonprofit tax status was no guarantee of capacity, however, and small CBOs were also cited as sometimes struggling to meet grant or contract requirements (although they were less vulnerable to legal challenges related to church/state separation). Nevertheless, this tax status was regarded as helpful by FCLs and by a number of FBCO and intermediary respondents.

The FCLs differed in how much and how they focused on educating FBOs  and state and local agencies  about Charitable Choice regulations, for a range of reasons.

By the time of the study, about half of the FCLs in the study sites  three early adopters and one recently established office with a clear mandate to implement Charitable Choice  explicitly emphasized educating FBOs and state or local agencies about Charitable Choice opportunities and requirements. The others appeared to lack the resources, sense of mission, and/or legal or political authority to place a strong emphasis on educating FBOs and state agencies about Charitable Choice, and saw other priorities as higher. In some cases, respondents also indicated that they viewed this instruction as fundamentally the responsibility of state and federal funding agencies.

Among those that focused on FBO education on Charitable Choice, effective methods cited included presentations at capacity-building workshops, individualized TA, and written materials such as handbooks or information packets. Referrals to federal agency, White House, or independent organizations resources were also cited as helpful. One site also noted its review of its grantee cost reimbursement submissions to identify potentially inappropriate activities and opportunities for clarification of Charitable Choice policy. The sites currently emphasizing education of state or local agencies said they responded to agency requests for information, did their own presentations, brought in outside speakers or experts, met regularly with agency heads and staff, and/or worked to educate agency staff in the context of issue-focused or informal collaborations. No FCL offices systematically assessed either FBO or agency personnels understanding of Charitable Choice.

A number of perceived risks associated with implementing Charitable Choice seemed to contribute to a relatively cautious approach.

The legal ground underpinning Charitable Choice and the legally permissible practices allowed under it were viewed by many FCLs and FBCOs as somewhat unsettled and complex. The potential for lawsuits or other legal action, evolving federal guidance, and the possibility of court decisions further shaping the parameters of permissible activity appeared to encourage a cautious approach on the part of some FCLs working with faith-infused small FBOs. Numerous respondents stressed that small FBOs with minimal resources were vulnerable to unintentionally breaching church-state separation, and several FCLs emphasized that they did not want to steer wrong any of the FBOs with which they worked. Some seemed to feel that they themselves had sufficient expertise to guide FBOs appropriately, but others stressed the need for these FBOs to consult legal counsel and/or federal or state funders if they were likely to tread into any of the gray area of church-state law. It was noted that CBOs, too, could run afoul of state or federal financial accountability and other requirements if they did not have the knowledge or systems to meet them. But small FBOs, particularly those with an evangelizing mission, were viewed as potentially at risk on multiple fronts. Respondents stressed that major missteps by these FBOs were not only bad for them but also damaging to the faith-based initiative as a whole; some suggested that caution was in the interests of everyone.

More than one FCL also suggested that the incentives to FBOs to participate in funded government partnerships were limited, especially for the small, more faith-infused ones newly eligible under Charitable Choice. The lack of dedicated faith-based money and limited federal and state social service funds made it harder to persuade these FBOs to master complex federal or state grant or contracting requirements, change their administrative procedures, and possibly limit their faith-oriented practices, all for a shot at a steady or shrinking competitive funding pot.

The different FCL structural models have been effective in the different study sites, but each had distinctive strengths and limitations. Resources and FCL experience mattered in all.

The different modelsgovernor-centered offices, embedded functions, and nonprofit entities  offered trade-offs in terms of resources, authority, and perceived political neutrality, but they seem to have been used effectively within these sites particular contexts. In addition, each model has special implications for the sustainability of the FCL function.

The governor-centered model offers the advantages of the strong support and authority of a powerful politician, which can bring access both to FBCOs and state agencies and could bring resources as well. But it also presents the inevitable challenge of political transition. FCLs operating within the governor-centered model acknowledged needing to plan explicitly for the transition from one governor to another, knowing that their agendas may vary. Term limits in one site made the FCL and other partners very conscious of the window of opportunity they had for implementing the initiative and planning for sustainability and succession. Though time was limited, there was also the advantage of knowing exactly when transition would occur, encouraging this FCL to think concretely about a sustainability strategy.

The embedded model  in which the FCL is located within an agency  can provide knowledge about and access to partnership opportunities within state and/or local agencies, a relatively secure resource base, a level of perceived political neutrality, and durability over time. A potential drawback of the embedded model, however, may be a lack of authority relative to other state agencies since an embedded FCL may be in a position to persuade but is typically not able to require the cooperation of other staff in other agencies. The function can be effectively situated within the bureaucracy if it is led by a dynamic, committed, and mission-driven individual who has the inclination, expertise, experience, and skill to use bureaucratic channels and relationships to good effect. Bringing money to the table for partnerships with other state agencies can also help gain their cooperation, according to one FCL. With respect to sustainability, the sites using the embedded model are somewhat buffered from political volatility, but the model does not necessarily benefit from an influential champion who can fight for sustaining resources. In one case, the position was strengthened because the FCL had developed a strong relationship with his board chair who was one step removed from politics but was able to reach out to key political players, helping the FCL to leverage political support indirectly. But the embedded model carries a heavy reliance on the strengths of the individual FCL and the relationships they have cultivated with both agencies and FBCOs. There may be limited institutional support beyond the power of the FCL him- or herself, leaving the function vulnerable if the person holding the position leaves.

The nonprofit model seemed to bring flexibility, relatively quick decision-making, the ability to raise private funds, and a sense of shared identity with others in the nonprofit sector. Like the embedded model, the nonprofit model can also shield the FCL from political volatility. But at the same time, nonprofit entities may lack direct access to state or local agencies, which can inhibit their ability to promote Charitable Choice implementation among them. Their status may also make it more difficult to reach important political players (though in the two study sites with this structure, the governors have to varying degrees been strong advocates). Stakeholders may be able to compensate somewhat for this drawback through board members who are politically well connected, and influential boards can also facilitate private fundraising. This may be critical if, as in Florida, state law places strict limitations on the use of state funds for activities conducted by FBOs. Some of the study respondents suggested that the nonprofit model (or some variation on it) may also offer the greatest opportunity for sustainability over time, though the fact that the FCL had reached the stage of establishing a nonprofit may reflect a level of support that would, in and of itself, reinforce sustainability.

Several of the study sites shifted from one model to another over time, moving from the governor-centered approach to either the nonprofit or embedded model. In some cases this seemed explicitly intended to provide greater sustainability. In other cases it appeared to be more the result of ebbs and flows in the intensity of key elected officials support.

Finally, staff and financial resources were important in all of these models. The range of activities and the ability to focus effectively on outreach, capacity building, and FBO and agency education were all associated with a sufficient level of funding and staff. But FCL and staff experience, knowledge, and relationships could contribute to significant achievements even with limited or inconsistent resources. In particular, a strong grassroots presence  with FCLs and their staff visible and responsive to FBCOs  was seen as essential to a credible and effective FCL function.

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