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Faith-based Funding Comes to Cherokee Country

WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush has filed one federal budget request after another for cutbacks in social spending, and the chorus of critics on that count wasn’t much muted by a March report that showed a marked increase in federal grants to faith-based social service groups.

But in the Cherokee counties of Oklahoma, a grant from the Compassion Capital Fund is getting an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The fund, established in 2002 as part of the Bush administration’s efforts to encourage faith-based funding at federal agencies, delivered $724,080 to the Cherokee Nation Compassion Capital Project in fiscal year 2004 and $965,440 in FY ’05. Negotiations are under way for another $965,440 in the current year, the last one of the grant. In hard times for federal funding, the grant money has given a great start to the Cherokee Nation’s ambitious plan to build cohesion in 100 Cherokee communities.

The Compassion Capital Fund grant came from the Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services. The project is required to work on ACF/DHHS priorities, which include intervening with at-risk youths and elders. These are also priorities of Cherokee communities, said Rick Gassaway, manager of community and volunteer organizing for the Cherokee Nation. “There was just a good fit for the concerns of our communities.”

Churches are involved because of the “strong church ties” that characterize Cherokee communities, Gassaway added. “In Cherokee country, most faith-based organizations are just churches.”

In the past, projects relying on churches may have met with difficulty in getting a federal grant, due in part to conventional doctrine on the separation of church and state and in part to plain old red tape. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, established by executive order of Bush, has placed a center in 11 leading government agencies.

Facilitating agency grants to faith-based organizations, or to community groups that serve faith-based populations, is a mission-critical goal of each center.

The White House has reported that between fiscal years 2004 and 2005, a handful of agencies has increased their grants to faith-based groups by 22 percent, while the percentage of all federal grants that have gone to faith-based groups has risen from 10.3 to 10.9 percent. The federal government gave out $2.154 billion to religious charities in 2005, a 7 percent increase over the previous year.

Before green-lighting the Cherokee Nation to go after the grant that would get it into the faith-based funding stream, Gassaway and his staff sounded out the communities. They showed strong interest in the Cherokee project’s proposal to work with churches and community organizations on building their capacity to apply for their own grant funds. Capacity-building has come in the form of grant writing workshops, training for nonprofit incorporation, board of director duties, Internal Revenue Service reporting, establishment of internal financial controls and accounting procedures, and computer technology. Gassaway said the project has engaged a total of 53 community organizations in various training venues.

Community organizations can also apply to the Cherokee Nation Compassion Capital Project for grants, which are known as “sub-awards” under the terms and conditions of the federal grant. The project is required to put 20 percent of the total grant amount into these sub-awards to organizations they work with. In the project’s first year, it spread $256,000 in grants among 24 organizations. In the second year, as the capacity of the organizations to receive and manage the grants grew, the project awarded more funding – some $356,001 – to fewer organizations, 18.

An organization that has benefited fully from the training and the “sub-awards” is Cherokee Elders Council Inc. Though not formally affiliated with any particular religious faith, the volunteer group operates a church-owned Rainbow House in the economically distressed community of Locust Grove, Okla. Anyone in need can go to Rainbow House for free food and clothing, school supplies, bed linen, children’s toys and other necessities. A second Rainbow House, in Marble City, represents a first step in the decade-old organization’s expansion plan. The council hopes to establish a Rainbow House in each of the 14 Cherokee Nation counties.

But for that to happen, the council’s fund-raising and project-management skills needed an upgrade.

The Cherokee Nation Compassion Capital Project has provided it, said Lorraine Hummingbird Bates, a board of directors member who doubles as the organization’s secretary.

The project taught them “what a large organization should look like,” she said, adding, “They have been at our elbow, helping us build our organization.” Bates had already spent several years learning the ins and outs of fund raising, so the project’s “technical assistance” (as it’s known in nonprofit jargon) has concentrated on enhancing the council’s grasp on organizational effectiveness.

The project helped the council install a computer and outfit it with the proper software for the organization. It helped institute a records-keeping process and an auditing system.

With its “sub-award,” the council replaced immobile wooden clothing racks with wheeled ones, purchased shelving for donated items and a refrigerator for donated foods, all to the great improvement of appearances at the Locust Grove Rainbow House, which had been getting cluttered up and inconvenient for the volunteer staff and the clients. To improve the effectiveness of its fund-raising events, the council purchased a cotton-candy machine, a snow-cone machine and a funnel cake machine, all proven income-generators in the region.

Jack Hummingbird, the council’s chief elder (and Bates’ brother), said of the Compassion Capital Project, “That’s been real beneficial to us.” As an organization of 10 years’ standing, Cherokee Elder Council has also been able to share its experiences with the younger organizations in the project’s network.

The project’s breadth of assistance extends to culture as well as social services. Throughout the nation, Gassaway said, the project finds an emphasis on Cherokee language and culture. Social problems, particularly involving youths, prove to be more approachable when elders can talk the language and live the culture.