Handshakes and Hugs: A Study of the Approaches Used by Local Social Service Agencies to Partner with Faith-Based Organizations in Virginia

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


"If the [White House faith-based] initiative was going to have an impact on the local community, you had to begin to think of the initiative in local terms." – Brad Yarbrough, Director of the Oklahoma Office of Faith and Community Initiatives

Charitable Choice and other faith-based initiatives attempt to provide faith-based organizations (FBOs) easier access to public funds for social service delivery in the community. Five years after Charitable Choice was included in the federal welfare reforms of 1996, President George W. Bush introduced the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives in order to expand partnership opportunities between federal agencies and FBOs. The Bush administration actively recruited religious groups to apply for public dollars that would fund local social programs. The actions in Washington mirrored similar movements that took place in many states during the mid to late 1990s. Since then, so-called "faith-based social services" have received their share of media attention and public scrutiny. Much of the attention has been on political-philosophical debates and the legal challenges to church-state separation.

Research by Bartkowski and Regis (1999), Kennedy and Bielefeld (2001), Gomez (2003), Vanderwoerd (2004) and Sager (2006) depict the efforts of individual states to implement Charitable Choice policies and the attitudes of FBOs towards partnerships with government. However, there has been inadequate research on the experience of local governments who engage faith-based providers on a daily basis. Much more can be learned about the themes that shape current collaborations between local social service agencies and the faith community in Virginia.

Using a collective case study design, this research captures the experiences and perspectives of local public managers who have formed partnerships with FBOs mostly through non-financial means. The data shows that federal and state faith-based initiatives have little influence on the way local social service agencies in Virginia conduct their work. The typical partnerships with FBOs are the result of pre-existing, informal and non-financial relationships that have been fostered and sustained long before welfare reform or without the impetus of any faith-based initiatives.



Faith-based Social Service Delivery, Nonprofit Partnerships, Charitable Choice, Faith-Based Organizations, Local public Managers