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Cincinnati's funding for nonprofits hasn't always been reliable. Recent changes at City Hall aim to fix that

Cincinnati spends a little less than 3% of its General Fund budget on human services organizations. These are community groups that do things like mentoring and helping the unhoused.

In the past, these organizations have struggled with red tape and procedural hurdles to get those city contracts and even pay their employees in a timely manner. Recent changes at the city aim to improve the process.

United Way takes on larger role

As Danny Burridge walks through the Joe Williams Family Center in Price Hill, he dodges dozens of teens and kids hanging out after school. An intense basketball game is underway in the small gym.

"This in here is our art room. You can see we got we got folks already doing Christmas arts and crafts," he says.

Burridge is the youth development director at Santa Maria Community Services, which runs a program aimed at giving kids and families resources for self-sufficiency.

"Kids that are in our program, who are in middle school and high school, can very easily get involved in drug dealing and make money, and obviously run the risks that come along with that," he says. "It's kind of an immediate opportunity that I know for a lot of those kids is hard to pass up."

Santa Maria's work is funded in part by the city's Human Services fund. Burridge says city grants are important because they cover staffing costs.

"There's a lot of grants that only want to … sponsor supplies, stuff that's going to go straight to the kids, straight to the families," Burridge says. "I think it's a shame so many foundations don't want to support staffing, don't want to support somebody to have a decent job to be able to do this work that's really hard and really draining and emotionally exhausting."

Santa Maria is adding a new full-time position thanks to the most recent city grant.

Jim Holstrom, right, is the former director of youth development at Santa Maria. He still comes into the Joe Williams Family Center to volunteer.
Becca Costello
Jim Holstrom, right, is the former director of youth development at Santa Maria. He still comes into the Joe Williams Family Center to volunteer.

Human services funding hasn't always been reliable. Back in January, 19 organizations were waiting on the city to sign contracts that should have been finalized four months earlier.

Mike Baker is chief strategy officer at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, which has managed applications for the city's human services funding for about 12 years.

"There was a period of time when organizations were still delivering those services on the promise of the contract to come," Baker says. "But it took, in some cases, a few months to get the contracts processed, and then even further delays in receiving payment on that."

The delays were just the latest hurdle for nonprofits in the middle of a pandemic. City Manager Paula Boggs-Muething looked into the process and offered a solution: let the United Way take on the contracting and reporting. It's the kind of work they do for other grants.

"Because we assume a lot of the risk in our contract with the city, we're able to kind of simplify some of the payment processes from what the city would be required to do," Baker says. "So we can pay in advance — still tracking expenses, still tracking the results, but taking a few steps out of the process, which makes it a little bit easier for organizations to participate in the fund."

Another new change was lowering the minimum grant amount from $40,000 to $20,000 to make it easier for smaller nonprofits to apply.

Guiding Light Mentoring got a city grant for the first time this year. Founder and President Latisha Owens says it's helping her expand with new program for teens involved in the Hamilton County Juvenile Court.

"Having some classroom sessions to talk about gun violence, gang relations; we're going to talk about self-esteem, because a lot of times individuals, they act out, because they don't have that self-love, self-value, self-worth about themselves," Owens says. "And then we're also going to talk about conflict resolution skills."

City not 'checking out' of funding process

While shifting a lot of the red tape outside of City Hall, Boggs-Muething rearranged the city's administrative structure to create a new Department of Human Services.

Director Virginia Tallent started the job in May. She says all contracts for this year's funding were signed by Sept. 1, thanks to the expanded partnership with the United Way.

"I also want to be clear, though, that the city isn't trying to check out on our oversight of that money," Tallent says. "If anything, this allows us to be, I think, more thoughtful and careful in our focus, and frees up space and time to maybe even attend with more care to these important matters."

So far, Tallent has been building out a Children and Families cabinet, joined the City Manager's Advisory Group on youth violence, and spends a lot of her day coordinating with service providers for people who are experiencing homelessness.

Her primary goal is to improve how the city works with nonprofits. Latisha Owens says that's sorely needed. The world of nonprofit funding is highly competitive and sometimes unfair.

"Unfortunately, some grant funding is based on relationships," Owens says. "So if I know Becca serves on that committee, I know that this is going to be a little bit more persuasive to talk to the other grant reviewers to get them to push our application through."

The city's human services fund aims to take politics out of the process. The volunteer board of the Human Services Advisory Committee reviews all the proposals and recommends where the money should go. Council has the final say and usually approves the recommendations.

Reflecting the communities organizations serve

Some council members wanted to remove the United Way from this process last year, saying most organizations with funding are disproportionately led and operated by white people while primarily serving African Americans.

"I would be happy if they would say, 'Well let's fund more Black organizations,' but how many times we have to keep asking?" said Council Member Tamaya Dennard in January 2020. "We've been saying this for years and nothing's changed."

That discussion faded from public view when Dennard was arrested on federal corruption charges and resigned from office.

Council Member Chris Seelbach looked into the allegations, however, surveying all the organizations getting funding back in summer 2020:

  • Average percentage of African American clients ranged from 50% to 86%
  • Average percentage of African American employees ranged from 27% to 55%
  • Average percentage of African American board members ranged from 21% to 37%
A survey conducted by Council Member Chris Seelbach's office shows the racial make-up of clients, staff, and board members for organizations receiving human services funding from the city.
Council Member Chris Seelbach's Office
A survey conducted by Council Member Chris Seelbach's office shows the racial make-up of clients, staff, and board members for organizations receiving human services funding from the city.

Seelbach says after reviewing all the data, "we found that clients and staff largely reflect Cincinnati's African American community, in the specific populations being served by individual programs. The racial makeup of the nonprofit boards are well above the national average; however, they could and should strive to include more minority representation on their boards."

Still, politics persist

It's impossible to eliminate politics altogether. City council sets the priorities for which issues to fund. The priorities were last updated in 2019:

  • 31.2% to reduce homelessness
  • 29.6% for comprehensive workforce development support
  • 16.8% for emergency wrap-around services (direct support for anti-poverty programs)
  • 11.4% to addiction prevention
  • 3.4% to violence prevention
  • 3% to senior services
  • 2.6% to legal services

It's very competitive. For fiscal year 2022, a total of 72 programs applied for more than $6.7 million in funding. The advisory committee recommended 60 programs for the $4.9 million available.

Council can also give money directly to an organization outside the United Way process — sometimes quite a lot of money. These grants have similar reporting requirements, but groups don't submit applications with plans for measurable outcomes; they just have to get five votes on council.

In the most recent budget, several organizations got this "leveraged support" funding, including:

  • Bethany House ($100,000)
  • Center for Addiction Treatment ($87,500)
  • Center for Closing the Health Gap ($750,000)
  • Cincinnati Works ($250,000)
  • Immigrant and Refugee Law Center ($50,000)
  • Shelterhouse ($305,000)

Mike Moroski, new director of the Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County, says organizations are pitted against one another.

"[Funding is] always used as some kind of bargaining chip," he says. "It's always on the chopping block, it's always kicked around as something that has to go. I don't foresee it being any different going forward, [although] I have high hopes for the new council and the mayor."

In the meantime, Moroski says contracts are being paid on time and that's a big improvement. Danny Burridge says Human Services Director Virginia Tallent even visited Santa Maria's youth program.

"She seems just really enthusiastic about making sure that we can focus as much time as possible on our work with people, on our work with programming," Burridge says. "And not have to worry as much about all the reporting, all the grant writing."

The future is a bit uncertain, but the United Way's Mike Baker says the new elected officials can rely on a strong process already in place.

"I'm very hopeful that new council, a new mayor, will take a look at not just tweaks and process improvement, but what is it aligned to do?" Baker says.

Mayor-elect Aftab Pureval and the new council take office in January.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.