How can a non-profit organization durably improve the lives of low-income, low-skilled citizens? This question took on new urgency in the 1990s, when the national outlook on public welfare shifted. Penny Penrose, then the executive director of Southern Good Faith Fund serving Southeastern Arkansas, recognized that systemic changes in the Clinton administration’s ‘welfare reforms’ demanded a systemic response. SGFF would need to balance its programming – then focused on job-training of certified nurses and small business development – with aggressive work in public policy.

Penrose hired Angela Duran as a one-woman policy office, and by 1999 Duran’s efforts had changed state law: Arkansas was among the first states in the nation to create Individual Development Accounts. Through IDAs the state uses a portion of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to match the savings of low-income residents. Money accrued in these accounts helps families build long-term assets, through home ownership, post-secondary education, and small business creation.

“That was the first major policy success that we had,” says Mike Leach, who currently directs Southern Good Faith’s expanded, three-person policy team. Southern Good Faith Fund (SGFF) is an affiliate of Southern Bancorp, a consortium of non-profits and banks in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta. SGFF’s policy agenda, Leach says, “stems from our program work and complements our direct services” in education, job training, and asset building throughout Southern Arkansas.

Program offices are based in Pine Bluff and the Mississippi Delta town of Helena-West Helena. The public policy branch of Southern Good Faith, however, is strategically located in the state capital. From Little Rock, Leach and his colleagues — policy analyst Matt Price and research/communications manager Michael Rowett — build and maintain alliances with other anti-poverty groups in the state, carry out research and, through intensive media campaigns, keep the pressure on public officials. By recognizing and reinforcing the ties between Southern Good Faith’s service-goals (primarily asset building and education for the poor) and the legal substructures that can bring those goals about, the Public Policy program has changed Arkansas law to benefit its clients.

Its major win to date, scored with two dozen organizational teammates, was to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas by $1.10 an hour, effective October 2006. “We’re focused on asset development, post secondary education, IDAs, small business development; we work to promote entrepreneurship,” Matt Price says. “Obviously the minimum wage fit in perfectly. It affects the same population.”

Southern Good Faith Fund was there at the first coalition meeting to plan the campaign, in August 2005. Rev. Steve Copley of First United Methodist Church in North Little Rock, who led the drive to raise hourly wages for the state’s poorest workers, says Southern Good Faith Fund stepped up to create and communicate the message. “They allowed Michael (Rowett) to do our media work,” says Copley “and he’s an excellent writer, with a lot of skills and savvy.”

A former newspaper reporter who had also worked the other side – in political communications Rowett and SGFF’s research and policy staff generated 80 news stories between December 2005 and March 2006 to back the minimum wage increase. Another coalition partner had sponsored a poll showing 87 percent of Arkansans favored raising the base hourly pay in Arkansas. With this strong evidence of support, the campaign initially aimed at gathering signatures for a ballot initiative and amendment: to raise the minimum wage by a dollar and provide for future increases tied to the cost of living index, too.

“The legislature saw we had the momentum,” says SGFF’s policy director Mike Leach, and state business interests, he says, were alarmed by prospect of further wage increases. The coalition agreed to a compromise, relinquishing the indexing provision, and in exchange the Arkansas legislature took the wage hike upon itself, passing a $1.10/hour increase in April 2006. SGFF’s policy analyst Matt Price points out that Arkansas was “the first Southern state to enact a minimum wage higher than the federal standard, legislatively.”

Rev. Copley now wants to bring the clergy into other Southern Good Faith efforts. “I strongly believe that the work that they do with asset development and financial literacy is tailor-made for religious bodies to get behind,” says Copley. “I’m so impressed. It’s been easy to work with them. They’re open to trying to partner with the religious community, and they just understand how the religious community can function within the work they do.”

To further Southern Good Faith Fund’s longstanding commitment to adult education and job training for the poor, Mike Leach has worked closely with the Arkansas community college system for the past three years to develop Career Pathways, an intensive combination of schooling, career counseling, training, and job placement. Step by step, adult students may choose to find work that fits their new skill set, or ‘move on to the next step in the pathway’ — to training for a higher-paying job.

Steve Lease, director of workforce training for the Arkansas Association of Two Year Colleges, says the program has succeeded thanks to close collaboration between Southern Good Faith and the community college system. Southern Good Faith Fund “brought us up to speed on how to better serve underserved disadvantaged students and single heads of households,” says Lease. Now, “we’re joined at the hip,” he says. Their combined efforts got the attention of the Arkansas governor. “By spring of 2004, the governor dropped the policy hammer,” says Lease. With this show of executive support, SGFF and Lease continued gaining friends for Career Pathways among state agencies, and Arkansas policymakers fell in line. They voted to contribute federal TANF funding for the Career Pathways program at 11 of Arkansas’ 22 community colleges. Says Lease, “We’ve never offered this level of support and we’re seeing great success.”

Most recently, SGFF and the Association of Two-Year Colleges have been studying how to expand access to need-based financial aid. One idea is reforming the state’s 529 college savings plan into a state-supported match college savings plan for low-income families (similar to the successful IDAs). SGFF’s research into this and other matters of public policy has prompted Arkansas’ community colleges to address low-income students differently. “We’ve changed,” says Steve Leach. “We’ve gotten better.”

As a participant in Kellogg’s Rural People, Rural Policy initiative, Southern Good Faith Fund has many successes to share: the formation of a public policy program, its effective use of media, and a record of legislative change in wages, assets and education, all of which have benefited rural Arkansans. Further, the Career Pathways program, Matt Price says, “is replicable” and could work for any community college with resolve. SGFF’s work with religious groups also shows how non-profits can collaborate with clergy and their congregations, mobilizing “values” in support of better policy.

Mike Leach, SGFF’s public policy director, notes, “Our agenda is usually issue specific, but we don’t really have a rural policy agenda. I like the idea of trying to focus on rural policy.” He hopes that association with other organizations through the Kellogg policy initiative can expand and strengthen Southern Good Faith’s base of popular support, also. “We should have a much bigger grassroots connection than we do, a better connection to folks that actually live in these communities,” says Leach. Through Rural People, Rural Policy, SGFF hopes to establish “a broader network of people that we could go to, to develop policy agendas and move legislation”– so that in the future, not only will these skilled policy experts be working on behalf of low income Arkansans, SGFF’s clients will be speaking out, supporting Southern Good Faith’s programs in Little Rock, too.