In the fall of 2013 the Bill Long Foundation Board of Trustees contracted with Management Assistance for Nonprofit Agencies (MANA) to complete a study that would assist the Board in evaluating their operating procedures and the grant awarding process. The purpose of our study was to undertake a survey assessment of the nonprofit organizations operating in Oberlin, many of which are actual or potential recipients of the Bill Long Foundation grants. The objective of the assessment is to help the BLF board in its normal planning, in considering new initiatives, and in assessing the foundation’s potential for growth as a funding source.
MANA’s engagement was expected to include:
assembling lists of local nonprofits and selecting those to be surveyed,
gathering information from these organizations through written questionnaires and interviews,
submitting to the board a report with findings and recommendations for possible changes, and
meeting with the board to discuss the report.
The MANA team of consultants consisted of Ann Fuller, Claudia Jones, Peg Schultz and Ed Wardwell. The team interviewed representatives of local non-profits and programs. In addition they surveyed selected recipients of BLF funds for projects in the Oberlin School District and Oberlin College.
Summary of MANA’s Report to the Bill Long Foundation, January 30, 2014
Nonprofit Organizations and Programs
The first and largest category of activities that BLF funds is non-profit organizations and programs.
Through our interviews, we tried to determine how these groups dealt with the impact of the recession. Their continued existence attests to their ability to find creative ways to fill in for lost or reduced funding. Most local non-profit organizations need to raise their yearly budget from many sources, e.g., government, foundations, businesses, churches and clubs, and individuals. Even if certain staff positions are endowed, the groups still have to do supplementary fundraising. Most of our local groups were able to withstand the effects of the recession without staff cutbacks or reduced programming. For some, foundations filled in for the loss of other funds. Others have come to rely more on individual donations, large donors, and major fundraising events.
While local organizations have been persuaded in the past that endowments were the way to stabilize funding, only a few organizations have large enough endowments to make a difference. In addition, endowment payouts in recent years have been less than originally anticipated and are not increasing very rapidly as the economy recovers.
As organizations have lost funding sources, they have relied more on individual donations. Many groups have memberships and annual fund drives as well as appeals for longer-term commitments and bequests through deferred giving. Some organizations have a few large donors or board members who may cover a budget deficit.
The Community Foundation of Lorain County holds endowments for many organizations and schools. Payouts, which are averaged over 12 rolling quarters, decreased during the recession. Although these endowment funds have recovered somewhat, the payouts have not come back fully, in part because recession payouts ate into the capital and investment fees increased as a share of market value. Some organizations hold part of their endowments outside of the Community Foundation to keep more control and to have greater flexibility with the funds.
Several of the local non-profits are part of a larger parent organizations. This can be an asset or a liability for ensuring financial stability. As part of the parent organization, the groups often can't go out on their own for funding and are affected by overall conditions in the parent agency, which in effect is a funder.
Some organizations offer regular classes, workshops, and events for children and adults, requiring fees. Tuition is a larger budget item for some organizations than for others. Tuition rarely pays the full cost for classes and activities, so they must be subsidized to differing degrees. In addition, some organizations are struggling harder for class enrollment due to a change in culture in which interest in the classical arts is diminishing. Social service organizations have activities that are free of charge and must be fully supported through grants and donations,
Several organizations have onsite retail shops where they sell art objects, books, and hand-made craft items. The “Alternative Holiday Gift Fair” held at Oberlin College in December is an important venue for many local organizations.
Fundraising events have become more important as other sources have dried up. Many organizations have them, but they are time-consuming, and often are not the most efficient way to raise funds. Churches support a variety of local organizations; however, church philanthropy has been affected by the recession and shrinking church attendance.
The second category of programs that BLF funds is Oberlin School District projects. The main concern with respect to these projects focused on the timing of the grant cycle and ways to publicize the grant opportunity within the schools. We found that school personnel are applying for the next academic year, so the current BLF calendar is satisfactory to them.
Oberlin College Projects
The third category of programs that BLF funds is Oberlin College projects.
BLF has not received many grant proposals from Oberlin College staff or students. By seeking applications from Oberlin College, BLF might encourage students to be more involved in the Oberlin community. However, the current timing of the BLF grant application cycle does not fit the Oberlin College calendar well. Another issue is the need for a fiscal agent, required by the Foundation for proposers that are not themselves 501(c)(3) organizations.
From our study, it appears that the College's Bonner Center is the logical place for BLF to connect to Oberlin College students looking for project funding. The Bonner Center works with Oberlin College faculty offering courses with a service learning component. It also offers small grants to students for service-learning projects. Funds are granted on a rolling basis. This timing model may also work for BLF grants for student projects, though the fiscal agency issue would still have to be handled.
Categorize granting areas
Since BLF now offers grants to three kinds of recipients, this could be stated in publicity and on the website. A more explicit definition of program areas acceptable to the foundation might keep people who have no chance of receiving a grant from applying. Another idea would be to let applicants know in advance if their proposals do not meet the foundation guidelines.
Modify grant application timing for Oberlin College projects
No one calendar seems to fit the needs of all the three categories of grants that BLF gives. Both the majority of the non-profit organizations and the Oberlin school applicants were satisfied with the current calendar. School personnel stated that they are applying for the following year. Non-profits, with few exceptions, were not particular about what the grant timing was except that it be consistent. The third category of grant seekers, Oberlin College students or staff, would be more likely to apply with a different calendar.
Our suggestion would be to have two funding cycles: One for non-profits and school projects with the current deadline; a second one for Oberlin College projects. As long as it was clear how much money would be allocated to Oberlin College projects, it might be possible to do them on a rolling basis, similar to the way the Bonner Center runs its student grant program.
Develop a brochure and distribute it widely within the larger community.
Make a general announcement through the website, Facebook and a newspaper ad. Alert new and existing organizations through email, and letters, and board and foundation donors through the annual solicitation letter.
Hold a “get to know the Bill Long Foundation” mid-day event at the Bonner Center to encourage Oberlin College student applicants.
Show greater flexibility
Some respondents felt that the Foundation might be more flexible about the size of grants. For example, there may be some one-time project that could use a larger amount for a particular year, with the understanding that it would be funded only once.
Consider making two-year grants under special circumstances.