As Washington’s politicians, think-tank experts, and pundits focus on the big picture of proselytization and government regulation when it comes to the faith-based initiative, the heads of charitable organizations are concerned with the small details: Will the proposal increase overall funding for charitable work? Will it increase my paperwork load? How will it affect my mission?
For many of these on-the-ground observers, the faith-based initiative is intriguing—but they’re waiting to hear all the details.
Most administrators like the idea of reducing the red tape that has limited their ability to participate in government-funded programs. But they’re wary of the restrictions that may come with government money and are unsure whether the initiative will increase the total amount of funds available to social service providers.
Some agency heads, like Ali Suleiman Ali, director of Muslim Family Services in Detroit, say President Bush is on the right track. The three-year-old agency, which has just two paid employees, offers family counseling, tutoring, and assistance for the homeless and needy. Working with a staff of about 15 volunteers, some of whom donate their professional psychological and psychiatric skills, MFS counselors see about 500 clients annually, while other MFS programs serve several hundred others.
The agency has been asked by local juvenile and adult courts to sponsor programs for job training and alcohol and addiction recovery, Ali says. He initially turned down the request because he didn’t feel the agency was ready to take on new responsibilities. “We thought, ‘Before we go to the government we have to prove ourselves,’” Ali says. “But very soon we would like to go that route.”
Currently, Muslim Family Services is funded by small individual donations, primarily from Muslims. “According to the Muslim faith, charitable giving is required,” Ali explained. “Many people give to us because they want to see how their money is being used.”
The agency is not affiliated with a particular mosque or otherwise run by an Islamic institution, Ali says, and programs like tutoring are entirely nonreligious. But the agency’s marriage counseling is founded on Islamic doctrine, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs would draw on Islamic laws that forbid consumption of alcohol.
But counseling programs would also be based on the “moral precepts of life, which are similar among the three divine religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism,” he says. “We would talk from a religious point of view about the harm alcohol can do to people and to society.”
Buying Blue-Chip Futures
Five hundred miles to the east, in Baltimore, Steve Solomon, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Central Maryland, sees possibilities in Bush’s proposals but worries that unless additional funds are allocated to service programs, his agency will end up with less funding as more groups compete for limited federal dollars.
“My concern is that if there is no new money, we will just be diluting existing programs,” Solomon says.
Jewish Family Services includes programs for foster care, adoption, counseling, mental health care, victims of abuse, the elderly, and people with disabilities. It serves 1,300 counseling clients a month and has about 15,000 “contacts” annually through all its other programs. Solomon says the program has about 250 full- and part-time employees and 300 to 400 volunteers. The agency receives government grants for programs, including mental health and disability services, in addition to private grants.
All Jewish Family Services assistance is available without regard to the faith of the recipient. However, Solomon says when it comes to privately funded programs that charge a fee—counseling, for example—priority for subsidized lower fees is given to low-income Jewish applicants.
Despite his fears about lack of new funding for social services, Solomon says one aspect of the initiative that he finds appealing is the possibilities it opens up for smaller community groups to offer localized services.
“Here, the greatest area of interest is for after-school care,” he says. Individual synagogues that currently aren’t in a position to take on the complex government requirements for funding might be more willing to apply for something like after-school tutoring programs if the process was simpler.
But until the actual changes in policies and regulations are made, Solomon’s attitude is “wait and see. We don’t know yet how it’s going to shake out.”
Rev. Marvin Cheek is also in wait-and-see mode. Cheek is pastor of Main Street United Methodist Church in a working class neighborhood of New Albany, Indiana, and oversees his congregation’s social services, which include a weekly soup kitchen, an emergency food pantry, a thrift shop, and community outreach.
Cheek hopes to develop programs for youth and children, including after-school care with a computer lab and tutoring, and might be interested in seeking government funds to do so. But like many others, he is concerned that complying with government regulations will prove more trouble than it’s worth.
“Years ago, at another church, I looked into obtaining funding through the state for a day care center,” Cheek explained. “It would’ve cost our parish so much just to meet the staff and paperwork requirements that we didn’t do it.” Instead, the parish used private money to open a three-day-a-week nursery school.
Cheek is following the debate in Washington with hope that things really will change. “If the government can help us provide the means to help struggling families, to provide safe places for kids, that’s great,” he says. “But for now, I want to wait and see what red tape the government builds into it.”
Return to Sender
Some faith-based organizations aren’t interested in government funding no matter how easy the process becomes.
Eleanor Poe has been director of the Baptist Clinic in El Paso, Texas, since it opened 28 years ago. She’s fiercely proud of the fact that she has “never written a proposal for a government grant. I didn’t want one.”
Operating out of a local Baptist church, the all-volunteer clinic sees 100 to 150 patients each Saturday. During the week between clinic hours, its 35 to 40 volunteers make appointments and follow up on lab tests and referrals. Twenty-nine physicians rotate through on Saturdays, four at a time, while other specialists volunteer their services as needed. Funding comes from various local churches, individuals, fund raising events, and foundations, but never from the the state or federal government.
Except for its location inside the church building, the clinic is not specifically affiliated with a religious entity. But Baptist principles about the relationship between church and government functions prevail. “As Baptists, we believe in the separation of church and state,” she says. “If you’re doing something under your faith, you need to find your funding in private places.”
Also, Poe has worked under government contract at other organizations, which soured her on the idea of accepting public money. “We would be at work until 11 p.m. doing their paperwork,” she says. “I will not spend what I have left of life doing government paperwork. And I don’t want the government coming in here with a lot of restrictions, and so many rules and regulations. We really want the freedom to serve and love the way we want to.”
Poe’s comments are echoed by LDS Family Services of Boise, Idaho. The agency provides adoption and family counseling services mostly to members of the Mormon church, which forbids affiliated social service providers from receiving government funding.
“It’s such a hard and fast policy that there has not even been any discussion of participating under any new programs,” says program director Alisa Fowler. LDS services are funded by a tithe-based grant from the Mormon church. Fowler says the funding is adequate and she sees no need to solicit additional income.
But Fowler says the agency’s funding structure also means LDS Family Services is unlikely to see much benefit from President Bush’s proposal to allow non-itemizers to deduct charitable donations.
Here’s where Muslim, Baptist, Methodist, Jewish, and Mormon program directors are in agreement: While they all hope they’re wrong and they see a flood of new donations, none expect tax code changes to make much of a difference in direct contributions to their agencies.
Ali and Fowler point to the fact that Islamic and Mormon teachings already make it a religious duty to donate money to the poor, while Poe believes that people who are going to donate to receive a tax break already do so. Cheek, of the Indiana Methodist church, says he thinks the tax deduction for non-itemizers is “a great idea.” But that’s mostly because it would help him with his personal tax debt.
Of course, whether the faith-based initiative will help or hinder the missions of religious charities remains a mystery—one the administration seems in no hurry to clear up. Once on a fast track, the initiative seems to have lost steam in Congress, with a final bill unlikely to appear before late this year and no changes to take effect for another year or so. So those charity administrators who are waiting to see will just have to wait a little longer.
Patricia Zapor is a reporter for Catholic News Service in Washington, D.C.