Some nonprofits get Cincinnati city dollars without formal application process

Posted at 7:00 AM, Jun 23, 2017

Every two years, dozens of nonprofits go through a rigorous, months-long application process in the hopes of getting a small slice of Cincinnati’s city money devoted to programs aiding the unemployed or homeless.

But a select handful of nonprofits get thousands of dollars from Cincinnati City Council every year without any formal application process.

City Council approved a $1.6 billion all-funds budget Wednesday, and as usual, leaders spent the most time talking about the roughly $4.3 million they ultimately voted to spend on human services funding, which goes to the region’s nonprofits.

While these nonprofits might have worthy causes, some question how political connections influence which ones gets funded – and which get left out.

“The organizations that just get put in as line items in the (city) budget, all I know is that it’s pretty obvious: It’s kind of a who-you-know-thing,” said Mike Moroski, a director the local nonprofit UpSpring, which did not apply for city funding. “Some people would say that’s overly political. I would say, ‘yes, it is.’ I do feel, for the most part, the organizations that are given the line items are organizations that can demonstrate real outcomes.”

There are typically two ways a local nonprofit gets city money from Cincinnati. The mayor, a City Council member or the city manager can suggest a nonprofit gets directly funded through the city’s budget. Or, nonprofits can seek city money through an application process the United Way helps oversee.

This year, the nonprofits that were given money directly in the city’s budget were the same ones that got funding in last year’s budget.

Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn has pushed for City Hall to better scrutinize how these groups are funded.

“I don’t have a problem with the city providing human services funding as long it is truly a competitive process,” Flynn said.

Last year, Cincinnati gave out $8.7 million to organizations meant to bolster economic development initiatives, neighborhood programming and social services. 

Of those funds, $4.6 million was set aside specifically for human services and violence prevention. Most of the nonprofits competing for those funds must apply for the money through the process the United Way helps to administer. 

Moroski sits on the 17-member committee that makes recommendations to council about which nonprofits should get that $3 million – and which shouldn’t. The committee ranks each nonprofit based on how it will help two of the city’s biggest goals: reducing homelessness and unemployment.

Forty different nonprofits applied this year for funding and the committee began discussions back in January to decide who would get money in next year’s budget cycle, which begins in July.

“There’s actually quite a bit of scrutiny and thought,” Moroski said. “It’s an important job.”

The United Way helps that committee understand what the city’s priorities are for the money, said Dionne Owens, the coordinator for the city’s human services funding.

“It’s oversight, making sure that the committee … understands the goals, and understands how to drive impact in the community,” Owens said of the United Way’s role.

But some local nonprofits bypass that process and get city funding without applying at all. Instead, they had someone in City Hall advocating for their programs.

“Often, if you have an advocate that knows what you do, and believes in your work, they’re able to help you through the process,” Cincinnati City Councilwoman Amy Murray said of how some nonprofits get directly funded in the city’s budget.

Four nonprofits – The Center for Closing the Health Gap, Cincinnati Works Hand Up Initiative, Strategies to End Homelessness and Cincinnati Union Bethel – get a boost in funding directly from the city’s budget. The Health Gap, which teaches healthy lifestyles to residents in low-income neighborhoods, received the most human services funding at $750,000.

Other nonprofits, too, get money directly from the city’s budget. The city uses neighborhood dollars to give Keep Cincinnati Beautiful and 3CDC money, for example. Economic development money goes to the Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati and the Film Commission, among other organizations.

Allen Woods, a founding partner for MORTAR, said his group has worked hard to maintain relationships with those at City Hall, and to show a strong return on the city’s investment. His group got $65,000 in economic development money last year.

MORTAR has helped entrepreneurs launch small businesses in up-and-coming neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills. It has received funding from the city since 2015.

“We’re always bragging on the fact that we live in a city that supports the work we do. We find there are not a lot of cities that do that,” Woods said. “They took a chance on us. We’ve been able to do some amazing things since then. We’ve built the relationships -- we do have those conversations.” 

Flynn and Murray have pushed for more city oversight on the nonprofits that are funded directly through the city.

In this year’s budget, before the money is allocated to the nonprofits, the city and organizations will have to agree to a contract and performance measures, thanks to Flynn and Murray.

“It’s just making sure that we’re being smart with taxpayer dollars, and we’re really utilizing the money that’s put forward to help homelessness and poverty,” Murray said.