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Community Grants: A Lesson in Hard Choices

Mutual Respect and Pragmatism Help Maximize a Shrinking Resource


When Goleta Mayor Margaret Connell asked me to volunteer a few hours to help evaluate applications for one of the city’s community grants programs, I was too surprised to ask many questions. If the mayor thought a local journalist could help her sort out the most worthy from all the worthwhile applicants, I figured I could try.

She warned that this fiscal year the city’s budget for the program was “a meager” $10,000. However, I thought, this could an interesting way to learn more about the services provided by local nonprofits. Besides, these grants cannot be more that $2,500 so the money won’t take long to distribute.

Vic Cox
Click to enlarge photo

Vic Cox

Right on the first point; wrong on the second.

Like many, if not most, small California towns, Goleta’s financial support of nongovernmental service groups has declined in recent years. One such effort, the Community Project Grant (CPG) program, dropped from $30,000 in fiscal 2008-09 to its current low point of $10,000. Launched in 2002, the CPG nonetheless retains its importance to the city.

Though other people were part of the screening committee, the views presented on this year’s CPG process are mine alone.

The first inkling that I should have asked more questions came after I agreed to join Mayor Connell and psychologist Anna Kokotovic on the screening committee. Each evaluator was presented with a three-inch thick, white binder stuffed with applications for 49 separate programs or projects. The hopeful petitioners asked for a total of $99,400.

Most, but not all, requested the $2,500 maximum grant. Each had completed a two-page questionnaire, the heart of which was a description of how that group proposed to use the requested funds.

Some sought aid for ongoing programs sponsored by their schools or service clubs; social issue and nature protection-oriented groups vied with applicants promoting the arts and cultural heritage. At-risk young people and low-income seniors had advocates, too.

Staff analyst Karen Dorfman broke the applicants’ information into categories that informed us as to: whether the applicant had nonprofit status, how much was being requested, how the grant would help the community (including people living outside city boundaries), whether the group received a grant the previous year, and whether it had applied to another municipal program known as the community development block grants.

Before we met as a panel, each evaluator read all the applications, accepting applicants’ information at face value. We knew $10,000 would not stretch far, so via email we began by defining reasonable criteria that could guide our priorities.

While continuing to refine these criteria during face-to-face discussions, we realized that a basic conflict existed: Should we parcel the funds to as many worthy applicants as possible or focus on larger grants to fewer applicants? We tackled that problem obliquely. By listening respectfully to each other and accepting compromises, we ended up with a balance between both approaches.

Early on we agreed that all recipients should be IRS-recognized nonprofits and that funds should go to services rather than construction budgets. We also looked for services focused primarily, though not exclusively, at Goletans. South Coast residents are generally mobile and communities often face issues that overlap political boundaries, such as childcare, poverty, and environmental degradation.

As we discussed a proposal, the evaluators contributed relevant knowledge from their own experiences. For example, Dr. Kokotovic headed a Santa Barbara-based child abuse prevention center for nearly 20 years and knew well the local social service landscape. The mayor’s grasp of the city budget helped avoid duplication of programs already scheduled for support. This swayed me on more than one meritorious application.

At the end of the day, we recommended that the City Council disburse 12 grants ranging from $500 to $1,000—which it voted to do earlier this month. Support went to programs for at-risk young people, the homeless, the unemployed disabled, low-income schoolchildren, senior activities, hiking trail maintenance, a service scholarship, folkloric dance arts, and several broad-based traditional public entertainments, like the Goleta fireworks show and Stow House December holiday event.

I do not think any of us on the screening committee were really satisfied with assisting less than a quarter of those who requested the city’s help. Yet I felt heartened that, despite ongoing cutbacks nearly everywhere, something could still be done to support those groups of good will engaged in making this community a better place to live.

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