“Congratulations on giving me enough information to make my head explode tonight,” remarked Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher after a presentation at the board’s Oct. 15 meeting. His board colleague Amanda Edwards and Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships, had just delivered a proposal to revise the way Buncombe doles out Strategic Partnership Grants to area nonprofits and community organizations.
Introducing a higher level of detail, Edwards and Nygaard noted, was a key part of the proposed guidelines. Commissioners currently have no standardized rationale for awarding the grants, which totaled nearly $600,000 for the current fiscal year, the two said, also charging that the county has been inconsistent in enforcing application deadlines. Therefore, said Nygaard, the board has often fluctuated in its approach to funding decisions; during a May 21 pre-meeting discussion, Belcher called the process “such a train wreck.”
Edwards offered numerous changes to address these issues, the most significant of which would be the establishment of a volunteer committee to review applications. This group, she said, would consist of nine community members with experience in the county’s strategic focus areas — environmental stewardship, educated and capable community, vibrant economy and resident well-being — and would provide funding recommendations for final approval by the commissioners.
Commissioner Al Whitesides applauded that idea, saying the current grant system “was just too darn political” and that community expertise would help the county make better decisions. “I had to jump through hoops before coming on the board with this process,” he said, referencing his past work with area nonprofits. “Whoever would holler the loudest would get it, and a lot of organizations were lost in the shuffle.”
Board Chair Brownie Newman, however, was less enthusiastic about the committee proposal. As an elected body, he argued, the commission already represented the desires and priorities of county residents regarding strategic grant awards.
Other changes suggested by Edwards included a strict adherence to application deadlines, limiting funding to three years for a single project and capping awards at 30% or less of an organization’s total budget. She also proposed a list of criteria by which to evaluate applications, such as alignment with the county’s strategic goals, community need, demographics of the client population and organizational financial health.
“We had several applicants speak to us about not understanding the process for applications and feeling like they had to come speak to us to really advocate for funding for themselves. It didn’t feel that it was very equitable,” Edwards explained. “I wanted to work with Rachael [Nygaard] and the staff to really create a very transparent, open, equitable [process] for every organization in Buncombe County to have the opportunity to apply for funds.”
Board members took no action on the proposal but plan to vote on its approval during their next meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Should the changes be approved, grant applications would open in December, with a submission deadline sometime in February. Grant review would conclude by May, with funding awarded for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.