A strategy for coordinating major funders of nonprofits in Washtenaw County has been in the works for more than a year, and is now being rolled out to governing boards for approval.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Washtenaw Urban County executive committee, members were briefed on the proposal, which involves the Washtenaw United Way, Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation, Washtenaw County, city of Ann Arbor and the Urban County. Together, these entities provide about $5 million annually for local human services nonprofits.
Mary Jo Callan, director of the Washtenaw County/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, told Urban County members that the public/private model would focus funding on six priorities that have been identified for the entire county: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food.
The two-year pilot project is grounded in previous coordination between the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and the Urban County, a consortium of 11 local governments. The office of community development (OCD), which Callan leads, already manages nonprofit funding for those three entities.
Callan also said this could be a national model for communities that are trying to do a better job of delivering human services with constrained resources.
Some members of the Urban County executive committee, while expressing general support, also raised questions and concerns. How do individual nonprofit agencies fit into the funding model, especially if they don’t provide services in the areas identified as priorities? Will small or new nonprofits be able to compete successfully for funding, or will larger, well-established nonprofits have an overwhelming advantage? How well will the different cultures of United Way, the community foundation and local governments work together, and what roles will they play?
Callan acknowledged these challenges, but noted that many of these same concerns exist under the current, more fragmented funding model. Coordinated funding is the best approach to providing needed services to people in the county, she said.
The Urban County is expected to vote on the proposal at its Oct. 26 meeting. The other groups – including Ann Arbor’s city council – are expected to vote at meetings in late October and early November. Callan will also be making a presentation about the initiative to the county board of commissioners at their Oct. 7 working session.
Coordinated Funding: How It Works
Callan began her presentation by noting that Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and the Urban County have already integrated their funding for human services – those groups combined represent about $2.6 million in annual funding for nonprofits in the county. Callan’s staff – with representatives from the county, city and Urban County – reviews applications from nonprofits and makes funding recommendations. Each governing entity subsequently reviews and approves recommendations tied to their funding sources.
Now, the intent is to include United Way of Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation in this effort. United Way distributes about $2.3 million in grants, while the community foundation gives out around $300,000 annually, according to Callan.
There are already collaborative efforts that involve these groups, most notably a common online grant application system. Over the past few months, Callan said, representatives from these different entities have been talking about how to work even more closely, with an eye toward better organizing the community’s investments in nonprofits. They’ve met with nonprofit leaders to get feedback, as well as with key donors, business leaders and other stakeholders.
Callan said that funders have been asking nonprofits to work together and collaborate, so modeling that kind of approach makes sense. That’s one of four principles that guide this approach: 1) focusing on the consumer of services, not on the organization that provides the services, 2) creating savings and improving the process for funders and service providers, 3) leveraging the assets and strengths of each funding organization, and 4) providing a model of cooperation and collaboration.
The plan is to target investments in six priority areas: housing/homelessness, aging, school-aged youth, children from birth to six, health and food. When reviewing applications for funding, Callan said, priority will be given to these areas: “Our investments will tie in with the community plan.”
Each of those areas will have a planning/coordinating group that will help make recommendations about the kinds of services that the community needs. For example, the Blueprint for Aging consortium could identify needs of senior citizens in the community, while the Washtenaw Housing Alliance could do the same for the needs of the homeless or people needing low-income housing.
Callan stressed that these planning/coordinating groups wouldn’t be making actual funding decisions, but would be providing input and guidance.
Overall, the approach will provide a shared set of funding guidelines, Callan said, as well as a single deadline to apply for funds from all funding entities, a single review process, a single set of funding recommendations, and a single, shared monitoring and reporting process. This more efficient approach will save time and money for the funding agencies as well as the nonprofits seeking funds, Callan said.
Urban County Members Raise Questions, Concerns
Throughout Callan’s presentation on Tuesday, members of the Urban County executive committee asked questions and raised concerns about the approach, though overall they expressed support.
Margie Teall, an Ann Arbor city councilmember representing Ward 4, asked how individual nonprofits fit in to the model. Callan replied that during feedback sessions they’ve held with nonprofits over the past few months, that was the No. 1 question – the nonprofit leaders are understandably concerned, she said, because it’s a change.
Callan then gave an example of the Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti, which provides basic medical care to low-income youth. If the planning/coordinating group for health identifies dental care as a priority, but Corner Health Center requests funding for a theater troupe, they probably wouldn’t get funded, Callan said – it wouldn’t be the right fit, obviously. But it would be crucial for the planning/coordinating groups to reach out to nonprofits, she added, so that those seeking funding would understand the community priorities. “It seems convoluted,” she acknowledged, “but it’s partially what already exists.”
In response to questions about how the planning/coordinating groups will be selected, Callan said that the entities already exist. In addition to the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Blueprint for Aging, the groups include Food Gatherers, the Washtenaw Alliance for Children and Youth, and Washtenaw Success by 6.
Bill De Groot of Salem Township noted that it’s already difficult for new nonprofits to get funded, and this plan seems to make it even harder. It’s important to keep an even playing field for nonprofits, he said.
Callan responded that nonprofits are mechanisms to deliver services. “they are not the be all and end all,” she said. It might be the case that new nonprofits don’t get funded, but the services they want to provide could be delivered through new programs at more established nonprofits, or through partnerships.
Leah Gunn, a Washtenaw County commissioner for District 9 who also chairs the Urban County executive committee, said her problem with new nonprofits is that they might be duplicating services provided by existing groups. Joe Zurawski, York Township supervisor, said his gut feeling was that this new approach might actually make it easier for new nonprofits to get funded, if they provided services that matched the community priorities.
The main goal, Callan said, is to do the most with the resources the community has, “not to make sure everyone gets funded who wants funding.”
De Groot also asked about the Urban County’s role in this approach. [By way of background, the Urban County is a consortium of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and 9 townships, responsible for allocating federal funding for low-income housing and other community development projects. The funds are managed by staff of the joint county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development (OCD). For additional background on the Urban County, see Chronicle coverage: "Urban County Allocates Housing Funds"]
Callan noted that it would be similar to what currently happens. The OCD staff makes recommendations, which are then voted on by the Urban County executive committee.
Darrell Fecho, Scio Township manager, wondered whether this new approach would take away the ability of the Urban County to provide funding for neighborhood groups. Callan said the Urban County executive committee could carve out part of the federal funding they received through the Community Development Block Grant program to fund neighborhood organizations, if they wanted.
De Groot returned to his point about making sure that smaller nonprofits aren’t pushed aside. He said he agreed wholeheartedly that their goal should be to serve as many people as possible with the resources they had. But he didn’t see how the new approach would make it easier for the “little guy” to compete against a larger nonprofit, even if the smaller one provided better services.
Callan drew on her experience as a former nonprofit director, for the Ozone House. Often, funding seemed directly correlated to relationships with funders, and isn’t necessarily outcome-oriented. Part of this plan is to develop a shared set of outcomes by which nonprofits can be measured, she said. The OCD staff is drafting those metrics, and hope to have them in place by November.
De Groot urged her to make sure that existing nonprofits are made aware of those metrics, as they prepare for the next funding cycle.
Overall, Callan acknowledged that the coordinated funding approach isn’t perfect. “But it will be an improvement over how the fragmented system works now.”
Callan said she’ll continue to talk with representatives from these various funding entities, to explain the proposal. The United Way board is expected to vote on the proposal on Oct. 14, followed by votes of the Urban County on Oct. 26 and the community foundation board on Oct. 30. The proposal will be considered by the Ann Arbor city council at its Nov. 1 meeting, and by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners on Nov. 3.
The goal is to have a system in place before the next two-year funding cycle, which begins in July of 2011.