Magic Wands? Glass Slippers? Funding D.C. Nonprofits
By Marianne Scott
When the clock strikes midnight on Sept. 30, public-private partnerships will be severed all across the District.
Public grants to nonprofit groups that foster youth leadership, preserve the city’s heritage, engage residents in finding community-based solutions to problems, support creativity in our neighborhoods, offer legal services to help keep people from becoming homeless, and provide many other vital services will vanish as fiscal 2010 begins.
The forces driving this change are understandable. In late July, the combination of a projected budget shortfall of more than $660 million and legitimate concerns about political patronage led the D.C. Council to eliminate all earmarked grants. Faced with such difficult budget choices, the “shared sacrifice” philosophy that the council and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty followed to preserve the District’s fiscal health was sound.
This decision to eliminate earmarks for social services, arts and humanities groups to help close the budget gap snuffed out what advocates of government transparency view dubiously as disbursement by fairy godmother’s wand. In Cinderella’s world, once the power of the wand dissipated, the glass slipper still promised a way to a happy ending. But in the District, nothing will be left behind after midnight. The earmark money was not redirected toward transparent, open-grant cycles by which nonprofits could compete to deliver their services and programs, which, after all, are still needed. For the most part, the money was simply cut from the budget.
For many years, earmarks have been a mechanism by which the D.C. government invested in innovation and supported community service in the public interest. By and large, our elected officials have not used such earmarks as magic wands to bestow political favors. They know there is nothing magic about government funding, and so do the groups that work hard to be good stewards of those grants. Overwhelmingly, local nonprofits understand the responsibility that comes with receiving their neighbors’ hard-earned money.
And government grants to nonprofit groups often have had multiplier effects. A nonprofit’s ability to combine private donations with public funding can expand the programs and services provided in the city in a fiscally responsible manner.
Some government grants to nonprofits reduce the need for more expensive government intervention; a grant that strengthens a community group’s ability to resolve conflicts or mitigate gangs may reduce the police presence needed in that area. Some nonprofits receive government grants to help build a stronger, more-9engaged economic and civic base for the city through revitalized neighborhood commercial corridors, historic and cultural preservation, vibrant arts scenes and literacy promotion. Some activities, from counseling domestic-violence victims to promoting voters’ rights, are clearly in the interest of D.C. taxpayers but can be better performed by local groups that have the trust of the community than by the government.
The District’s fiscal 2011 budget decisions will not be any easier. Let’s take time now, before the next cycle starts, to consider fiscally responsible ways for government to invest in a range of nonprofits that have specialized abilities and that work to provide programs and services that make our city a better place to live.
How about borrowing the more transparent mechanism from Cinderella’s playbook? It would be the equivalent of the prince’s open invitation to one and all to try on that glass slipper — open, competitive grant processes and collaborative partnerships between city agencies and nonprofit organizations working to achieve the same goals.
Marianne Scott is the chair of the board of directors of the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. A $250,000 grant to the Humanities Council was removed from the D.C. budget plan in late July.
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