A Citywide Grants Program Guided by Citizen Volunteers
The Cleveland Foundation’s Neighborhood Connections program, launched in 2002, provides small grants (from $500 to $5,000) and technical assistance to neighborhood groups for a wide array of improvement activities and projects. The program has three main goals: (1) stimulate the development of new projects designed by grassroots groups; (2) encourage new and stronger relationships among grassroots organizations and more established community-based organizations; and (3) provide support and opportunities to develop community leadership and organizational capacity. Neighborhood Connections operates citywide and is one of the largest and most comprehensive programs of its kind in the country. In its first three years the program had awarded 335 grants totaling $1.275 million.
One of the program’s distinctive features is the role that Cleveland citizens play in its governance. In designing the program, the Foundation saw an opportunity not only to strengthen its own connections to neighborhood leaders, but also to create a new grantmaking approach by establishing a committee of Cleveland residents to make grants and help shape the grantmaking process. The 16-member Grantmaking and Monitoring Committee, in place since the program began, helps ensure fairness and integrity in the grantmaking process. Selection and support of the Committee has been a top priority. To ensure the GMMC was a diverse group representative of Cleveland’s different neighborhoods, Foundation staff undertook a rigorous selection process that resulted in over 100 nominations; the candidate pool was narrowed to 56 nominees who were interviewed prior to choosing the Committee’s initial members. Those members received training to become familiar with Neighborhood Connections and the grantmaking process.
Members serve 3-year renewable terms and are broadly representative of neighborhoods throughout the city of Cleveland. After the first four grantmaking cycles, the GMMC added two more members to accommodate the program’s growing scale; alternates were also added, to make the transition easier as new members are brought on as vacancies arise. Now, after more than three years of experience, the process and guidelines are well established and the committee works judiciously to ensure their decision making is fair and that grants are broadly distributed throughout the city.
Neighborhood Connections has two grantmaking cycles annually. Each cycle takes about three months to complete. When each new program cycle is announced, Neighborhood Connections’ two-person staff convenes grantseeker orientations at public facilities located in neighborhoods throughout Cleveland. These sessions provide an opportunity to explain the program and application process, answer questions, and provide information on where prospective grantseekers can obtain help in putting their proposals together. Each proposal submitted is first checked by staff for completeness and then distributed to the Committee for review. The four-week review process is intensive. Proposals are divided among Committee teams, an approach that helps avoid conflicts of interest and ensure varied perspectives. Team members review proposals individually and then meet to discuss each one and choose those applicants who will be invited for a short interview. The interviews, scheduled in groups over several evenings, provide an opportunity for applicants to explain their proposals and GMMC team members to raise questions. When the interviews are finished, the teams convene to discuss and rank the proposals; team differences about individual applications are typically resolved by consensus. The following week the GMMC meets to make their final funding decisions. Throughout the process Neighborhood Connections staff is available to provide support to the Committee; however, final decision-making authority always rests with the GMMC.
Both Foundation staff and Committee members are enthusiastic in their support for this approach to awarding neighborhood grants. In addition, participation on the Committee has led several members to move on to other civic leadership roles.
Contact Person: Tom O’Brien
Title: Director, Neighborhood Connections
Telephone: (216) 615-7598