On April 14, representatives from 43 nonprofits waited patiently for the chance to request funding from Buncombe County.
As part of the county’s community development grant program, these funds support nonprofit projects in the county’s best interests. The main goal? Support organizations that support Buncombe County.
But these 43 organizations, requesting $4.2 million this year, make up only 9.6 percent of the total nonprofits in the county. Others rely on privately funded grants and donations, as well as individual donations — both small and large. Each organization must constantly work to grab and hold the public’s attention. And in a city like Asheville, it seems there’s never a shortage of worthy causes.
A giving community
“Buncombe County has a very vibrant nonprofit sector,” says David Heinen, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits.
According to the center, 449 nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations call Buncombe County home. At last count, near the end of 2012, these organizations collectively employed more than 16,000 individuals, making up roughly 13.6 percent of all employment in Buncombe County that year.
In total, these 449 nonprofits spent a total of $1.6 billion in 2012, the most recent year of data available.
“That sounds really high,” Heinen points out. “But larger organizations like Mission and Warren Wilson are included in that figure,” which make up a massive portion of those expenditures.
And when you look at county government money allocated to nonprofits, it’s nearly inconsequential in the grand scheme, compared with the billion dollar figure.
Government funding can contribute to a variety of public projects, “anyone from arts councils to direct-service providers,” Heinen says. “It’s typical for organizations doing more public work to stream funding from local government.”
Evolution of government funding
Last year, 48 nonprofits requested $6.6 million in funding but received only a fraction of that in the finalized budget, $2.3 million — which comes to less than 1 percent of the county’s $368 million operating budget as a whole.
“Some commissioners think we should’ve spent more than that,” Gantt says. But others, commissioners Mike Fryar and Joe Belcher, opposed the expenses during last year’s budget meeting.
However, Gantt insists that the nonprofits the county agrees to fund provide vital services that encourage economic growth and promotes the general well-being of its residents.
“It’s not like we give them money and say, ‘You’re great people,'” he explains. “There was a time when we did that, but we don’t do that anymore.”
The way the county distributes funding now, he continues, makes the county “much more accountable, and the organizations are more accountable to us.”
“They have to enter into a contract where we specifically assign benchmarks and goals that they have to [meet],” Gantt says.
In deciding which organizations get what, county officials ask themselves how the nonprofits’ projects align with county goals.
“Is this something that Buncombe County needs?” Gantt questions. “Because if we don’t need it, even if it’s nice, we shouldn’t [fund] it.”
Allison Jordan, executive director of Children First/Communities in Schools, explains that her organization has benefited greatly from previous years of county funding. And this year, she says, they’re applying for $100,000 to “help us expand into additional schools.” The nonprofit’s total yearly budget is “around $1.2 million, with about half of that supporting our AmeriCorps program.”
“All of our funding is important to us,” Jordan continues, mentioning that the organization’s additional funding comes from other foundations, civic and faith groups, corporations, individuals and special events. “We are a relatively small organization that impacts a lot of children’s lives.”
Ann Marie Traylor, executive director of the Environmental Quality Institute, says she feels the same. “We’re requesting about 10 percent of our current organizational budget from Buncombe County [this year],” she explains. “As you can imagine, that would be a painful cut if they withdrew their funding. Right now we monitor [water quality in] 53 sites monthly in Buncombe County alone — and about 160 throughout WNC.”
If the organization lost its county funds, Traylor says, “We would have to discontinue 20 sites,” unless another source of income comes along.
When asked why more nonprofits don’t apply for the county grants, Gantt speculates that “a lot of nonprofits think we’re putting them through too many ringers.”
As a part of the deal, each organization must be completely transparent with the county, giving quarterly reports, meeting goals and keeping promises made in the initial contract.
“A lot of nonprofits don’t want to do that, and that knocks a lot of them out,” Gantt continues. “We’re pretty hard on them, but we’ve got to get results if we’re using taxpayer money.”
But Cindy McMahon, senior consultant at WNC Nonprofit Pathways, says that nonprofit funding is “a pretty complicated picture.” Nonprofit Pathways provides training and knowledge-based assistance to nonprofits in the 18-county region, and McMahon has personally helped many organizations achieve success in their fields.
“There are all ranges and sizes of nonprofits,” she explains. “There are lots of really small volunteer-run organizations, and they’re not going to have the staff time that’s required to write a county grant. It takes more capacity to get those kinds of grants, and those groups [may be] able to function on a much smaller budget, without having to raise as much money.”
Apart from the community development grants, the county also contracts nonprofits for services normally created and handled by specific government entities. These nonprofits don’t have to make pitches at budget meetings — their work is funded through specific departments rather than the general fund — but, still, they are held to the same standards of efficiency.
“Buncombe County is well-known in North Carolina for partnering with nonprofits and for-profits to get things done,” Gantt explains. “Instead of setting up a new group [within the government],” the county seeks out and contracts established organizations to accomplish work that they’re already set up to do.
“If there’s a group already” specializing in that field, “why would [the county] try to reinvent the wheel?” he asks.
The biggest partnership, Gantt mentions, is likely the county’s contract with Western Carolina Community Health Services, a 20-year-old nonprofit specializing in preventative and primary health care for the under- and uninsured. “We’re paying less than we were and getting more in services because of the way that they’re set up,” he explains. “If they’re doing it cheaper and better than we can do it, it makes sense to go with the specialist — someone on the front lines of the area.”
This model for contracting out the county’s services is both cost- and time-efficient, says Gantt, and other counties have expressed interest in adopting Buncombe’s strategy. “If someone’s already on the ground doing it, there’s shorter time to get results. They can start [a county project] the next day.”
But, on the other side of the funding field, Heinen says, “there are a lot of organizations where maybe [government funding] is not appropriate,” so those nonprofits turn to “a variety of different funding streams.”
While Gantt mentioned that some nonprofits may be deterred by the county’s strict goal-oriented check-ups, Denise Bitz, founder and president of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, echoes McMahon’s point that transparency isn’t always the problem. The rescue organization, she explains, is just “too busy to organize” and do what’s needed to formally request a grant.
Instead, BWAR sought out a creative solution to keep the funds steady and the animals both fed and happy. “We’ve started a few businesses to fund the rescue work that we’re doing. We have two thrift stores, a store where we sell pet supplies and a grooming salon. We had to get creative because the work that we do is very expensive.”
Additional funds are generated from public outreach and engagement.
Elisabeth Bocklet, marketing and communications director at United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, says most of the local nonprofit’s funds “are generated from personal donations. We do seek out some grant money, but most of [our funding] is corporate and individual giving. And it’s a massive effort to obtain that.”
For nonprofits seeking out individual donors, the key to keeping the community engaged is through meaningful work, where donors get to experience firsthand the difference their contributions make. “We’re able to connect their giving to some real issues and create those deeper experiences for people so they can engage and feel connected,” she says. “It’s not just about writing a check; it’s about creating those connections to the greater good and engaging the community in the experience of giving.”
Bitz agrees: “Community engagement is critical, especially in animal welfare. There used to be an attitude that blamed the public for all of our work, like, ‘If it wasn’t for irresponsible pet owners’ and ‘If people would just spay and neuter their pets.’ It was always putting the blame on people,” she explains. “But I think, now, our whole perspective has changed. Overall the majority of people are really good. I find that, in this community, if we just keep reminding people of that and thanking them, then it really makes a difference.”
As an organization that’s mainly run by volunteers, Bitz says the important part is “allowing [the public] to be a part of the work that we’re doing. It’s really rewarding for people.” Specifically, she mentions, “we have a club called Outward Hounds that meets four days a week and takes [rescue] dogs out on a hike somewhere — usually the Blue Ridge Parkway or the Biltmore Estate. Anywhere from a 3-6-mile hike. It’s a great bonding experience for everybody.”
And those connections pay off: “Individual donors make up the vast majority of where our money comes from,” Bitz says. “We survive mainly on people that are donating $20-40 a month.”
Bocklet adds, “Everything from $5 to our leadership givers, who give $1,000 or more on an annual basis — they make up almost half of our campaign. They’re a huge component of our organization.”
And collaboration with other entities, says Traylor at EQI, is what helps keep many nonprofits afloat. Both of the environmental organization’s projects — biological and chemical analysis of local streams — are “funded through a partnership with other nonprofits and local agencies,” she says. “These partners pay a fee to have us analyze samples from their watershed or county of interest.”
Competition vs. Collaboration
And though it seems the region could potentially be overrun with nonprofits all seeking the same funds, Traylor says her organization works well with other environmental nonprofits, sharing ideas and data across organizational boundaries.
“We are just focused on the science and the objective-data collection,” Traylor explains. “We’re not really an advocacy organization with causes to get behind,” such as RiverLink or MountainTrue, she notes, so there’s not much competition from her point of view. “Really, our relationship with them is more of a partnership. If RiverLink is working in Ross Creek, they can use our data to see where a management project may work. … We work together with those groups more than compete, and they’re helpful when we apply for grants because we can say we’re partners with them and they use our data.”
It’s not that competition doesn’t exist. It’s that many local nonprofits are willing to work together to accomplish a common goal.
“You know, I think that there’s always competition in every industry to some degree,” Bocklet says. “But when we bring consultants in from other regions or states — and they see what’s happening in our community when it comes to the level of communication and partnership and the good intentions between organizations — they’re like, ‘Wow, this doesn’t happen everywhere.'”
Although overlapping nonprofits share a good amount of friendly competition, Bitz says the organizations grow and learn from each other in the process. “If we see Asheville Humane doing a great adoption promotion, then it inspires us to do just as well,” she says.
Bocklet adds: “There’s always going to be some amount of competition, and that’s healthy. But even more so, there’s a beautiful amount of collaboration in this community.”