Boosting Nonprofits: Supervisors Consider How to Get More Bang for Taxpayers’ Buck

Nonprofits, take your mark.

The process for charities to apply for county government grants is now open, and four dozen organizations are expected to make their case over the next three weeks as to why they should get a share of the sought-after dollars.

Among the new slate of county supervisors, at least a few have said they want to boost how much of Loudoun’s tax money goes to local charities. County leaders have also said they want to take a closer look at organizations’ operations and needs ahead of deciding which will receive funds and how much.

Last year, 41 organizations applied for county grants, and 31 received money, to total just more than $1 million in grants. The largest recipient, HealthWorks, received $180,000, and the smallest was Loudoun Youth at $3,316.

County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) wants to significantly increase the amount of money available for grants. She said she doesn’t have an amount in mind yet. First she wants to know how much applicants have requested funding over the past four years to grasp how big the need is.

By their nature, nonprofit leaders are usually slow to ask for what they need, she said. “If they ask for $5,000, they probably need $10,000, so I will take them seriously when I see their numbers.”

Amy Owen, executive director of the Community Foundation for Northern & Fauquier Counties, advises philanthropists as they look to support area charities. She’s endorsing talk of increasing the grant dollars “wholeheartedly.” As the county’s population has grown in the past decade so has the demand on the nonprofit community, she said. “Yet, grant funding hasn’t matched that. … The core heavy-lifting nonprofits either are not able to expand their services, or finding other sources of funding.”

Competing for Dollars

Randall and other supervisors say they plan to look beyond the multi-page grant applications to get to know the charities and ensure the money is making as big an impact as possible.

So far, Randall has met one-on-one with leaders from 20 nonprofits, and she expects to sit down with representatives from 30 more within the next several weeks.

“I want to know about their staff, how much money they need and what the increase in their services has been in the last 10 years,” said Randall, who was sworn in for her first term in January. “I’m trying to go about it in a very thoughtful way.”

Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg) also is new to the board, but she is familiar with the challenges of nonprofit funding from her years on the Leesburg Town Council. She wants to target more money to fight hunger and homelessness. Of the $1 million County Administrator Tim Hemstreet has recommended for nonprofit grants next fiscal year, $74,124 is earmarked for “hunger and homelessness mitigation.”

“That accounts for 7 percent of what is being proposed, which is identical to [current fiscal year] FY16,” she said. “Those are two critical areas that do not receive the bulk of the funding.”

Umstattd, who serves as the board’s liaison on the county’s Family Services Board, plans to look carefully at how the organizations spend money. She wants to see “which applicants have been able to provide necessary services with potentially the lowest overhead, or the most efficient overhead,” she said.

Umstattd and Randall noted that nonprofits’ budgets can have subtle nuances. For example, some organizations’ services—like those that provide counseling such as Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter—are personnel heavy. “Getting a family food is easier to do than [helping] a woman who needs legal representation and a safe shelter,” Randall said. “Those are two very different needs and the administrative costs vary widely. That’s important to consider.”

The board, with the help of the county staff, will take a close look at those numbers.

“I think the board has an obligation to the taxpayers to look at how each nonprofit operates, because clearly if county money is not going to the people it’s intended for, that would be a problem,” Umstattd said, adding that she has no evidence that local groups are not being good stewards of county funds.

The previous Board of Supervisors changed the procedure to determine which charities get county grants. Previously, the grants were debated by supervisors during the annual budget adoption process. Now, the board sets aside a pot of money for the grants and uses a formula to disburse it.

The grant dollars are divided into four categories: hunger and homelessness mitigation, emergency services, health and related services, and recreation and culture. Members of the county staff team up with specialists in each of those areas to vet and rate the applications. From there, the staff recommends to the board which organizations should receive grant dollars and how much.

The process was devised by Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) and Ralph M. Buona (Ashburn). Supervisors, and most in the nonprofit community, have praised that change.

“I applaud them for bringing that process from one that was political to one that is more formulaic,” Randall said this week.

As county staff members look through the grant applications, Buona suggested that the board stick with the new process and, for the most part, follow the staff’s recommendations to avoid supervisors playing favorites.

“We tried to depoliticize this whole thing,” Buona said. He added, “I have a lot of confidence in staff’s recommendation because their vetting process is pretty darn detailed.”

Last year, supervisors tweaked a few of the staff’s recommendations. Most notably, the staff initially recommended that Mobile Hope receive no funding for the current fiscal year because its application scored in the bottom half of all applications, according to the grant score card for fiscal year 2016. The board ultimately chose to give the organization $5,000, the maximum a nonprofit can receive in its first year of applying for funding.

Donna Fortier, executive director of Mobile Hope, said she was encouraged to hear some county leaders advocating more grant money this year. Mobile Hope, which provides food, clothes and other services for precariously housed young adults, has not settled on how much money it will request this year, she said. “We’re looking at that now. But our numbers have grown, our services have grown, so hopefully it will all be good.”

In terms of what groups should top the priority list for funding, Owen considers the supervisors’ new approach a success. “What they constructed a couple years ago is still accomplishing what they’ve set out to do, and that is to provide funding for core services and then some,” she said, noting that the recreation and culture category makes up the smallest amount of grant dollars, at just under $53,000, and probably should. “Not that those things are not important, but I think they have accurately zeroed in on the core services needed.”

An Investment in Nonprofits

The majority of the county board consider the money set aside for local organizations an investment. Even some of the most fiscally conservative on the board have said they see the value in funneling some tax money to charities.

“I see it as a cost avoidance,” Buona said. “Some nonprofits provide a benefit that is a lot of cost avoidance to the county so by helping out those nonprofits we’re actually making an investment.”

“You’ve got a series of problems that may result in more taxpayer dollars being spent in the long run if we don’t try to address them early on,” Umstaddt said, specifically noting mental health services.

Buona has said he’d like to get nonprofits more money, but this may not be the year to do it given fiscal constraints. Public school leaders are requesting a $48 million funding increase, while other county departments are also looking for funds to keep up with population growth. “I’d love to give everybody money, but the fact is, as it is we can’t fund the current budget without raising taxes significantly,” Buona said. “In my mind, we’ve set aside an appropriate amount for nonprofits.”

Even if they can’t write a bigger check for nonprofits, Randall said supervisors can play a role to lift up charities in other ways. Each month, she features a local organization that’s doing good things in her newsletter and during board meetings’ comment period. She calls the effort, “Voice for a Cause.”

“It’s not up to me to fund them, but one thing I can do in my role is make sure people know they exist. … I can give them a voice.”

Grant applications are due April 1. The board will vote in April on a final grant amount, and will decide in June how to divvy up the funds.

Nonprofits that received grant funding this year:

Loudoun Symphony $3,008

Children’s Science Center $3,158

Loudoun Youth $3,316

Help for Others $3,473

Loudoun Literacy Council $4,961

Community Foundation $5,000

Bluemont Concert Series $5,000

Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington $5,000

Mobile Hope Loudoun $5,000

Loudoun Therapeutic Riding $5,000

Alzheimer’s Association $5,349

A Place to Be $5,616

Northern Virginia Family Services $8,424

Capital Caring $11,794

Friends of Loudoun Mental Health $16,046

Brain Injury Services $16,310

Northern Virginia Resource for Deaf $20,325

Northern Virginia Dental Clinic $25,000

Red Cross $20,403

Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers $34,986

Loudoun Museum $36,007

Loudoun Interfaith Relief $47,237

INMED Partnerships for Children $49,535

Endependence of Northern Virginia $56,162

Legal Services of Northern Virginia $58,782

Good Shepherd Alliance $69,869

Loudoun Citizens for Social Justice Inc. (Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter) $75,580

Blue Ridge Speech Hearing $76,000

Loudoun Cares $83,843

Loudoun Free Clinic $88,455

HealthWorks $180,000

2 thoughts on “Boosting Nonprofits: Supervisors Consider How to Get More Bang for Taxpayers’ Buck

Leave a Reply