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Council member wants to make major changes to city's nonprofit funding

Courtesy Meeka Owens

A Cincinnati Council member is proposing significant changes to the way the city funds human services and other outside nonprofits. Although this funding is less than 4% of the city’s $474 million General Fund, it dominates public and council discussion during budget season.

The city budget has two mechanisms for funding third-party organizations: the Human Services Fund (administered by the United Way), and “leveraged support” funding, which includes funding for human services, neighborhood support, and economic development.

Council Member Meeka Owens hasintroduced a motion asking city administration to create a new process for leveraged support where organizations formally apply for funds. Owens says under the current system, council members spend a lot of time in meetings with nonprofits lobbying for money.

“When we're talking about taxpayer dollars and us doing the job that people elected us to do, we don't want to waste time,” Owens said. “And so information and education is often power in being able to make those decisions. And so I'm looking for a much more organized, streamlined process.”

The motion stipulates that the process “should make it clear to applicant organizations that support is intended to be a one-time allocation.” That could be a major change for organizations that have received leveraged support funding for the past several years.

Owens says the changes would give smaller organizations a greater opportunity for funding, but she’s also trying to bring more transparency to the process.

The Human Services Fund (HSF) is a subset of leveraged support. It’s administered by the United Way, which processes applications and distributes the actual money to organizations. Awards are decided by a volunteer board using a rubric of priorities set by council.

In a separate motion, Owens proposes restructuring the HSF to maximize potential impact. She’s asking for a third of that pot each year to go to one organization or project – what she’s calling an Impact Award.

“What we're excited about in the Human Services Fund is being able to leverage, what does innovation look like to tackle really big issues?” Owens said. “And so this might mean, what are national best practices, who are national partners that can come in and help leverage this money as well?”

The HSF this fiscal year was about $8 million, a record high. That would make the Impact Award about $2.6 million.

The rest of the HSF would still be divided among the council-established priorities. Those haven’t changed since 2019, but Owens says this Council will likely update them

“This is a Council that’s largely aligned on a lot of priorities and housing is definitely at the top of the list,” she said. “And so we will be very strategic with how we make decisions and allocate percentages.”

Owens says the United Way would continue to partner with the city to administer the funding, and says she’s been in communication with the organization about her plan.

Mayor Aftab Pureval says he supports the proposed changes.

“Our city has demonstrated our commitment to the essential role of human services providers, through record funding for the organizations that work every day to support our most vulnerable residents,” Pureval said in a statement. “Thanks to the vision of Councilmember Owens, and collaboration from Council, our administration and community partners, we are now moving toward a more intentional, data-driven process that leans into innovation and results. I’m proud to support this work to maximize our impact.”

Mike Moroski, executive director of the Human Services Chamber, says he’s happy to see City Council being proactive with Human Services funding.

“We trust that the ‘Impact Award’ will be awarded equitably and that the ‘data-driven, evidence-based metrics’ used for ‘monitoring the success of organizations that receive allocations’ will be designed by practitioners and professionals in our sector,” Moroski said in a statement. “Our goal at the HSC is to ensure we are building a Cincinnati and Hamilton County where everyone has an equal chance at attaining the life they desire and we are more than happy to help in this process as Council seeks to make a broader impact.”

The motions are co-signed by Council Members Liz Keating and Jeff Cramerding.

They’ll be referred to the Climate, Environment and Infrastructure Committee (of which Owens is chair) and be up for discussion at the next meeting on Oct. 11.

Learn more about each proposal below.

Leveraged Support

Leveraged support is allocated in line items in the annual budget. It starts with the city manager’s proposed budget, which the mayor can adjust before sending to council for further changes and final approval. Most organizations on the list have gotten funding every year for the past five or six years.

In fiscal year 2023 (July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023), the total leveraged support amount is about $18.3 million; without the HSF, it totals about $10.3 million.

See below for a list of leveraged support funding for the past few years (story continues after).

Human Services Fund

From 2004 to 2017, the city budget for the HSF did not exceed 0.8% of the General Fund. Council approved a plan in 2017 to incrementally increase the percentage for the Human Services Fund until it reached 1.5% in fiscal year 2023. The budget reached and surpassed that goal this year with an $8 million HSF, about 1.7% of the general fund.

Awards from the HSF are granted by the Human Services Advisory Committee, a board of volunteers appointed by the mayor and approved by council. The committee reviews applications submitted by nonprofits and decides how to divvy up the money. Contracts are awarded for two years at a time.

The awards are based on council-defined priorities that determine a percentage of funding for each category. This percentage breakdown was last updated by council in 2020.

  • 29.83% to reduce homelessness
  • 29.83% for comprehensive workforce development support
  • 16.10% for emergency wrap-around services (direct support for anti-poverty programs)
  • 10.89% to addiction prevention
  • 8.62% to violence prevention
  • 2.84%% to senior services
  • 1.89% to overhead

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

The HSF was significantly increased for fiscal year 2023, which was year two of the two-year funding cycle; the additional money was divided among the recipients.

See Owens’ motions below:

Corrected: October 4, 2022 at 2:15 PM EDT
The original version of this article included an outdated breakdown of percentage priorities for the Human Services Fund. It has been updated with the up-to-date information.
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.