County nonprofit funding at odds with resolution guidelines

FUNDING FOLLY?: A look into nonprofit performance reviews shows commissioners aren't adhering to resolution guidelines and don't have the whole picture when making community grant funding decisions.
FUNDING FOLLY?: A look into nonprofit performance reviews shows commissioners aren't adhering to resolution guidelines and don't have the whole picture when making community grant funding decisions. Graphs courtesy of Buncombe County

As the current fiscal year winds down, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has until June 30 to approve a budget. Part of that process is mulling over about $11 million in community funding requests from more than 40 organizations, mostly nonprofits.

One stipulation of such funding, according to the county’s Guidelines for the Funding of Nonprofit Agencies resolution, requires monitoring of projects using county dollars. Xpress delved into the current performance contracts and discovered 24 percent of county-funded initiatives are not at the 75 percent third-quarter benchmarks.

Further, Xpress learned nonprofits with “below performance standard” year-end performance reviews continue to get money, a move that runs counter to the resolution’s language.

Performance anxiety

Upon receiving community grant money, an agency must agree to report data to allow the county to measure the initiative’s effectiveness.

A look at performance data through the end of the third quarter of 2017 shows that 15 of 63 projects didn’t meet the benchmark for that point in the fiscal year. Four of those 63 only report annually and haven’t shared any data yet, while two are capital projects that are not subject to meeting annual goals. Those six aforementioned projects are not included in the 15 initiatives not currently at desired outcome levels.

Some projects see seasonal upticks. The Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, which facilitates the Southern Conference Basketball Championships, reports annually and is likely to hit desired project outcomes for attendance and economic impact from its March tournaments.

Others are a bit further away from satisfying prearranged metrics. The county has a five-tier grading system for where a program is in regard to tracking its goals: “slightly below performance standard,” “undesirable trend,” “below performance standard,” “desirable trend” and “met performance standard.”

However, no projects have the “undesirable trend” designation, even those receiving scores of 14, 36, 39, 42, 44, 54 and 56 percent of annual desired outcomes by the end of the third quarter on March 31. Those initiatives are given the “slightly below performance standard” mark. County staff told Xpress, “We don’t use ‘below performance standard’ or ‘undesirable trends’ on mid-year reports to allow for seasonality.”

It should also be noted that about 29 projects have met, or are exceeding, expectations.

Learning curve

The Asheville Museum of Science served 54 percent of its target number of Buncombe County students, and booked 42 percent of its target number of museum visitors, by the end of March. If the museum were on track to meet its annual objectives — assuming no seasonal variation in visitation — both numbers would be 75 percent.

AMOS Executive Director Anna Priest said a move to a new location, coupled with being closed for 2 1/2 months, caused an “anticipated dip” in visitors. “Since our soft opening six months ago, we’ve already seen over 20,000 visitors. This is twice the amount of visitors we would see in an entire year at our previous location, even with some of our exhibits not yet built,” she explained.

“We anticipate seeing another major jump in the fourth quarter with tourist season kicking in, as well as our summer camps and visiting summer camps starting up.”

MAKING THE GRADE: Every agency receiving community grant funds from the county must meet benchmarks to be eligible for future funding, according to a county resolution. Above is the third-quarter report for the Asheville Museum of Science. It shows the nonprofit is at 54 and 42 percent of its goals, respectively. Graph courtesy of Buncombe County
MAKING THE GRADE: Every agency receiving community grant funds from the county must meet benchmarks to be eligible for future funding, according to a county resolution. Above is the third-quarter report for the Asheville Museum of Science. It shows the nonprofit is at 42 and 54 percent of its goals, respectively. Graph courtesy of Buncombe County

Say what you mean

Language in the resolution guiding nonprofit funding states: “Nonprofit agencies will be funded only through a performance contract that is monitored and evaluated by the contracting department throughout the year and only renewed if the performance criteria have been achieved.”

However, Xpress learned that fourth-quarter performance reports aren’t available until after commissioners vote on the next year’s round of community grants.

Last fiscal year, commissioners doled out about $1.2 million in community grants. And earning a fourth-quarter “below performance standard” mark did not disqualify an organization from getting more money, despite language in the nonbinding resolution stating otherwise. In fact, of the 10 nonprofits deemed below standard last year, eight were funded again for the current fiscal year. Some of those agencies partially achieved their goals, while others failed to meet any of their benchmarks.

NOT RESOLUTE: The county's resolution concerning guidelines for funding of nonprofit agencies states those not meeting benchmarks will not receive funding in subsequent years. However, the resolution is nonbinding and commissioners don't seem to adhere to that clause. Resolution courtesy of Buncombe County
NOT RESOLUTE: The county’s resolution concerning guidelines for funding of nonprofit agencies states those not meeting benchmarks will not receive funding in subsequent years. However, the resolution is nonbinding and commissioners don’t seem to adhere to that clause. Resolution courtesy of Buncombe County

So what happens if the county pays for part, or all, of a project that doesn’t hit agreed upon metrics? “There is no financial payback penalty associated with performance targets,” says Rachael Nygaard, the county’s human services planner. “It is a factor for consideration that might affect future funding. That’s why reporting is on an ongoing basis throughout the year, so commissioners and the public have access to how the grants are doing in achieving results.”

Of the eight nonprofits with one or more projects currently below 75 percent of its goals, according to the third-quarter report, all are asking for funding in the upcoming fiscal year.

“Reports are provided to commissioners and county leadership quarterly, by request. And we publish that information,” said Nygaard when asked about how commissioners access the information.

Xpress reached out to all seven county commissioners, via email, asking for a simple “yes” or “no” reply regarding whether they use the reports when weighing their funding decisions. Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Joe Belcher, Ellen Frost and Brownie Newman responded that they rely on them for information about an initiative’s effectiveness. The other commissioners did not respond.

After inquiring about some of the potential issues of performance monitoring and final reports disseminated after funding approval, Xpress received the following statement, via email, from county staff: “We will review our use of performance indicators on these reports and assess whether there are improvements we can roll out for fiscal year 2018.”

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what commissioners will do in regard to footing the bill for projects in the upcoming fiscal year. They have until June 30 to approve a budget. Ahead of that is a scheduled public hearing for the spending plan on Tuesday, June 6.

And as Nygaard noted, “All grant funding decisions are made at the discretion of the Board of Commissioners. We gather, compile and provide information about how current grants are going, and they can use that as a factor for consideration.”

If you would like to review the county’s performance contracts you can find them at buncombecounty.org/community-funding.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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One thought on “County nonprofit funding at odds with resolution guidelines

  1. I’m shocked to learn that our government officials parcel out our money and make no effort to ensure thaqt it is spent as was agreed in the funding cycle.

    This comment from the county official says it all. Rachael Nygaard, the county’s human services planner says, “It is a factor for consideration that might affect future funding. ” Gee really, not doing what you promised “might” impact future funding? Bet it doesn’t.

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