Role of State Faith Community Liaisons in Charitable Choice Implementation. Virginia


Faith Community Liaison: Jane Brown, Director, Office of Community Programs, Division of Community and Volunteer Services, Virginia Department of Social Services 

Site Visit Dates: June 9-10, 2008

Site Context and Resources

Virginia was an early adopter of Charitable Choice and equal treatment principles. In 1999, the state general assembly passed a joint resolution establishing a task force, The Special Task Force Studying Ways Faith-Based Community Service Groups May Provide Assistance to Meet Social Needs, which operated from 1999 to 2001. It was chaired by then-Lieutenant Governor John Hager (R) and held meetings throughout the state over several years. Its work drew on a range of sources, including a Memorandum of Legal Principles Related to the Participation of Faith-Based Groups in the Welfare Reform Process, issued in late 1999 by the Virginia Office of the Attorney General. In 2000, on the recommendation of the task force, the Virginia General Assembly passed House Joint Resolution 289, which outlined the responsibilities of the Virginia Department of Social Services (VDSS) to further the goals of Charitable Choice and the FBCI; this role for VDSS was enacted in statute in 2002 (Section 63.2-703 of the Code of Virginia). Jane Brown, the FCL, has been involved in the initiative since its inception in 1999.

Under the statute, VDSS is directed to carry out a range of faith-based and community initiative responsibilities, including (but not limited to): leading and facilitating meetings; encouraging development of a network of local and agency liaisons; developing a statewide website list of organizations; providing information to FBCOs and public agencies; coordinating offers of assistance from FBCOs during natural disasters; making regular reports to the Governor and General Assembly; and performing other duties DSS deems appropriate. It notes that no additional funds or contractual preferences will be provided, other than past or potential performance standards utilized under the Virginia Public Procurement Act.

In 2001, the general assembly also revised the state procurement act (Section 2.2-4343.1) to further the goals of Charitable Choice and protect participants religious freedom. It added language that explicitly authorized public bodies to enter into contracts with faith-based organizations for the purposes described in this section on the same basis as any other nongovernmental source without impairing the religious character of such organization, and without diminishing the religious freedom of the beneficiaries of assistance The language of the law essentially mirrored the language of Charitable Choice and explicitly noted the right to hire on the basis of religion, among other things. In addition, it introduced two other protections. One required public entities to include a statement in all requests for proposals that they do not discriminate against FBOs, and the other required public agencies to provide program applicants or participants with a written notice of their right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion (or other protected characteristics) and the right to an alternative provider. The statute holds across the state unless it is superseded by a county procurement code.

Since 1999, the state has had a Republican governor and two Democratic governors; it appears there have not been dramatic changes in support for the FCL between these administrations. Party control of the legislature is split. The VFBCI does not currently appear to be controversial. During its development, however, both opponents and supporters were said to have had many opportunities to express their concerns through the task force meetings and legislative deliberations. Some of these concerns were addressed in the subsequent legislation.

In terms of religious identification, the states residents are 30 percent Baptist, 14 percent Catholic, 12 percent identify as no religion, and about 1 percent each are Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim (Kusman, Mayer, and Keysar, 2001). Ethnically, Virginia is 68 percent White, 20 percent Black, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian.

The VDSS website describes the mission of the states Faith-Based and Community Initiative (FBCI): The FBCI works across state agencies and with local government to: Serve as the clearing house and gateway for community and faith-based organizations interested in collaboration with government to address community needs; Promote partnerships between public agencies and community and faith-based groups to meet local needs; Provide training and technical assistance to help community-based organizations build their capacity to provide effective services; Expand the state's pool of effective service providers; Coordinate offers of assistance from the faith community at the time of emergencies or natural disasters. Ms. Brown identified her main day-to-day responsibilities as: 1) identifying resources and facilitating community partnerships; 2) organizing capacity-building opportunities; 3) strengthening the effectiveness of FBCOs to deliver services and programs, and 4) some management of specific programs, which change over time depending on the available funding streams. A major strategy for the FCLs work is facilitating linkages and acting as a catalyst. 

Ms. Brown is the director of the Office of Community Partnerships. This office and the Office of Volunteerism and Community Services within the VDSS Division of Community and Volunteer Services facilitate outreach to community and faith-based organizations. The Virginia Social Services System is state-supervised and locally administered so counties and cities play a key role in most programs. VDSS addresses a range of issue areas and the FBCI is integrated throughout them; it is less an initiative, Ms. Brown said, than an overarching emphasis on partnerships. The structure could be described as an embedded or integrated model, and, she suggested, key to its effectiveness are organizational and institutional connections to resources.

There is no dedicated funding for the FBCI. Operating costs come from the staff and administration budgets of the Office of Community Partnerships (about $590,000) or the Office of Volunteerism and Community Services (about $629,000). Four full-time employees from the Office of Community Partnerships and the Office of Volunteerism and Community Services dedicate a percentage of their time to support for the FBCI functions but carry other program responsibilities as well.[21] Ms Brown herself does not work full time on the FBCI.

Ms. Brown has over 30 years of social services experience and has worked at the county, regional and state levels. She has a BA in social work, and an MA in public administration and judicial process; both her experience within VDSS at the county and state levels and her academic background appear to have strongly influenced her work. She was initially a VDSS liaison to the 1999 Task Force before being designated the FCL in 2001. When taking on the FCL responsibilities, she noted, it is important to understand both the faith- and community-based communities, as well as to have a deep understanding of the workings of public agencies. The FCL described herself as a systems thinker, and recommended looking to state judicatories, associations, and groups around both well-established religious traditions and smaller, more typically excluded communities. Ms. Brown also stressed that it is critical to have a grounding in the relevant state and federal statutes and policies, as well as constitutional issues, in order to be able to address FBCO, government agency, and public concerns and questions; this is very important for moving the program forward and making sure the needed protections are in place.

Key Activities to Further Implementation of Charitable Choice and the FBCI

Sector-Specific Activities

The FCL emphasizes a mix of general outreach and capacity building for the FBCO sector and issue-specific work. She provides one-on-one capacity building and technical assistance (TA), and makes presentations at conferences held by other agencies and organizations focused on issues such as marriage, juvenile justice, and mentoring for prisoner reentry. She also speaks at meetings held by church organizations. In addition, the VDSS Office of Volunteerism and Community Service has led Best Practices Forums in four localities over the last year; these events are intended to allow FBCOs and other nonprofit groups to share information on service needs in their community and effective approaches to addressing them.

Ms. Brown places a high emphasis on educating organizations on the parameters of Charitable Choice and on building partnerships among FBOs (including churches), CBOs, and government. The offices Technical Assistance Handbook emphasizes the opportunities and requirements of Charitable Choice and equal treatment. It discusses potential funding sources  emphasizing that there is not a special funding stream available only to FBOs  and accountability requirements, including the fact that FBOs without separate 501(c)(3) status can segregate their funds in a separate account for auditing purposes. It also provides: detail about the VFBCI authorizing statutes, questions for FBCOs to consider before contracting with public agencies (including special considerations for FBOs), a Top Ten Tips for Ministries and Top Ten Tips for Public Officials developed by the Center for Public Justice, and a list of internet resources. The handbook is used as a basic guide at training, TA, and outreach sessions with individual churches, FBOs, and CBOs, as well as at larger meetings and conferences.

VDSS also works to link FBCOs both to unfunded and funded partnership opportunities with agencies and each other. One method is the VDSS on-line FBCI directory. The directory lists about 400 FBCOs and local agencies that have explicitly expressed interest in establishing partnerships ( faith_directory.cgi). The FCL also has an interested parties email list that she uses to send FBCOs information on funding, conferences, and other topics, and multiple VDSS programs target FBCOs with newsletters that include program, training and funding information. The FBCI page on the DSS website includes links to a FAQs handout about the parameters of the initiative, funding information, an organizational capacity assessment tool, a brief description of the technical assistance the office can offer, and a list of other resources focused on nonprofit management, grant writing, and emergency management. VDSS does not track the number of unfunded or funded partnerships among FBOs, CBOs, and/or public agencies, although both the FCL and other respondents indicated that they felt there has been an increase since the FBCI began formally in 2001.

The FCL described several stages to educating state and local agencies about Charitable Choice. Initially, she went out to agency leadership and staff, providing guidance materials and answering questions. She noted that the year the initiative was launched, her office held 10 regional meetings throughout the state to educate organizations and public agencies about its opportunities and requirements. Now Ms. Brown does some outreach to public agency staff, but feels that a basic understanding has been established. Because Virginias public social service system is county administered (with 120 local agencies divided into regions), she stressed the importance of local agencies in fostering partnerships and implementing Charitable Choice. She also noted that the FBCI statute requires VDSS to encourage a statewide network of local liaisons so she has worked to establish contacts and a base of knowledge within local agencies. Early on, she talked frequently with the local DSS network and community action agencies, noting, I went to every regional local directors meeting in the state and all the CAA association meetings. She continues to work with agencies, through specific initiatives and as there appears to be need for clarification. Ms. Brown indicated that she uses a range of sources of guidance on the legal and policy parameters, including the Pew Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy (especially the work of legal scholars Ira Lupu and Robert Tuttle), the Center for Public Justice, the Sagamore Institute, the Hudson Institute, and the Virginia attorney generals 1999 interpretation of how Charitable Choice applies to the state; she has used these both to deepen her own understanding and to refer others to for a greater understanding of the law.

Issue-Specific Activities

The FCL also manages and coordinates a range of projects focused on specific issues, some funded but a number unfunded. As of spring 2008, the most significant initiative was the Virginia Reentry Policy Academy, a public interagency partnership to identify barriers to successful prisoner reentry in the state and to develop strategies to reduce recidivism. Virginia worked with a National Governors Association (NGA) Policy Academy on Reentry, focused on reducing recidivism rates by improving pre-and post-release services, and Governor Tim Kaine (D) identified reentry as a priority, issuing an executive order that directed state agencies to work together in the Policy Academy to develop more effective reentry programs.

Ms. Brown represented VDSS on the NGA Policy Academy interagency team and in collaboration with others developed a model for better pre- and post-release planning and service coordination for prisoners leaving incarceration. Seven localities have voluntarily established reentry councils, a key component of the model, and are now implementing the approach (with a formal evaluation at Ms. Browns urging), which entails regular coordination between state and local social service and criminal justice agencies, and local FBCOs, including churches. The FCL works closely with each of the local reentry councils to maintain consistency with the model and share information and facilitate linkages within and across councils. Mentoring is an important part of the model, which the FCL noted was a lesson from her prior work with welfare reform, and FBOs and churches are seen as particularly well-suited to provide mentors. The initiative receives no dedicated funding, however, which has proven challenging, since many of the local and state agencies involved are already strapped for funds and face a state hiring freeze.

The FCL also works on broad mentoring and fatherhood initiatives (both unfunded), oversees a college access and support program for TANF-eligible single female parents (TANF-funded), and partners with other DSS offices on programs to encourage healthy family functioning.

The FCL does not undertake systematic assessment of the extent to which FBCOs (or public agencies) understand their rights and responsibilities, or are complying with the requirements of Charitable Choice. She noted that it would be hard to gauge that in any quantitative way, but she does formally survey participants in training sessions to assess their own understanding before and after the session, and said that pretty universally they indicate they feel better educated afterwards. In her TA and issue-focused work, she is also attentive to participants level of understanding and provides additional information and guidance where there appears to be uncertainty about the parameters of equal treatment policy. One local VDSS director cited Ms. Browns help in reminding us of what we can and cant do, reminding us that not everyone is Christian, offering perspectives from other county agencies, and trying to give everyone a level playing field. 

Successes, Challenges, and Lessons Learned

The FCL and other respondents identified a number of particular successes. One was the process by which the FBCI was implemented, which entailed several stages, including 1) education of the public, agencies, and FBCOs, 2) identification of resources, 3) capacity assessment and building, and 4) development of collaborations. The FCL suggested that the statute has been implemented in a way thats been very broad but locally focused so that it has become a part of the culture of the state. The political process by which the FBCI was established was also seen as effective, providing opportunities for opponents and supporters to make their views known, some which led to concrete changes such as the revisions to the state procurement statute. The FCLs general approach and perceived authority were also cited as particularly effective, with respondents noting her high level of dedication, accessibility, commitment, knowledge, and access to cross-agency partners. One FBO representative said, [she] makes sure the faith community has equal opportunity to compete for grant opportunities. A local partner suggested that the FCL had significant authority based on her relationships and experience, saying she can get things done. Several specific practices were identified as particularly useful for Charitable Choice implementation, including Browns presentations and the technical assistance handbook. Brown also noted the benefits of the directory, which provides FBCOs or local agencies with an easy way to find out who in their community might be appropriate partners, and helps organizations to collaborate.

A significant challenge has been the lack of dedicated funding and resources for both the FBCI functions and specific partnership initiatives, and sustainability of emphasis on the initiative over the long term may also prove challenging. The FCL position itself is not codified within statute. While having FBCI responsibilities in statute are helpful, it may not be sufficient over time since the responsibilities could, theoretically, be dispersed throughout the agency, rather than housed in one person or office. The FCL has made efforts to integrate these responsibilities throughout government  I want it so ingrained institutionally that when Im not here, its still moving forward, she noted  but this may remain a challenge. Finally, as elsewhere, some respondents said there is still misunderstanding and a lack of trust among some potential FBO and public agency partners. One FBO leader said there is still a sense among some agencies that FBOs lack sufficient capacity. He also thought that more needs to be done to explain the separation of church and state, the gray area. Some churches, he suggested, still misunderstand the dos and donts of what they can do with government money, and dont realize they need to separate program funds.

The FCL and other respondents identified several main lessons learned. It is important for the FCL to have a strong community organizing background and extensive experience within government. Effectiveness depends on where the role is placed organizationally, the experience of the person providing the leadership, and his or her ability to make connections between agencies and between FBCOs and agencies. An understanding of the statutes and policies that govern both the programs and Charitable Choice and the faith-based initiative more broadly is critical. There is also a need to have at least the responsibilities of the FCL function in statute to maintain sustainability. Finally, to be successful the FCL must be able to respect the diversity thats within the community and faith-based organizations of all shapes, sizes and be willing to learn from them.

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