Coordinated Funding Initiative In Ann Arbor Area Could Be State, National Game-Changer

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Mike Gallagher, Correspondent

When new, forward-thinking leaders are brought in to take charge of organizations looking to embrace cutting-edge ideas and operational concepts with a goal of improving service efficiencies for their respective constituents, it can be a game-changer.

When those leaders are Neel Hajra, president/CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation (AAACF), and Pam Smith, president/CEO of the United Way of Washtenaw County (UW), government, business and philanthropic leaders say they expect the results to be nothing short of dynamic.

Smith took the helm of her local United Way in 2012, followed by Hajra at AAACF in 2015.

It didn’t take the pair long to get together to discuss the “Coordinated Funding Initiative” that their respective organizations had helped launched in 2011 along with three of their fellow funding partners, the  Joint Office of Community and Economic Development, which represents Washtenaw County, the City of Ann Arbor and the Washtenaw Urban County Executive Committee.

It was during that year that the five funders agreed to coordinate the leadership and funding of the region’s human service programs in order to maximize community impact. The group invested a combined $10 million to support a two-year pilot program that focused on six key areas:

  • safety-net health
  • hunger relief
  • housing and homelessness
  • aging
  • early childhood
  • school-age youth

The goals were monumental, if not daunting: adopt a funding model with three distinct components designed to prevent gaps and avoid redundancies in services while streamlining application and reporting procedures for grantees.

“To make all that work there needed to be enhanced information sharing between all players, working closer with local nonprofits to establish common community goals and increased cooperation and agreement in funding decisions,” noted Hajra.

Smith said what has – and will continue to – make this initiative successful is the ability of the funding partners and nonprofits impacted to work together and not as separate entities operating in their own silos.

“There are so many nonprofits and we were always asking ‘How come they can’t work together better? And all of a sudden we are looking at ourselves and asking ‘Are we doing that? Are we walking the walk or are we just telling others what to do? Can we be good examples of the work we are trying to encourage in other nonprofits?’

“One of the drivers for us (UW & AAACF) is making sure we are a best practice. By working together we want to show an increased strength and increased commitment to making sure our desired outcomes really happen,” added Smith.

Over a two-year period, the various funding organizations awarded $8.2 million in programming grants to 40 nonprofits; identified and funded a Planning and Coordinating Agency for each of the six priority areas with approximately $620,000 in related grants being handed out; and gave another $550,000 in capacity-building grants so the nonprofits could afford to handle the increased workload.

AAACF and UW rely on more than anecdotal evidence in measuring their successes.

An evaluation of the Coordinated Funding Initiative launched two years ago by the TCC Group, a national company that develops and evaluates nonprofit strategies and programs to help them achieve social impact, found that the grantees had increased their evaluation capacity and were better able to measure meaningful outcomes; grantees had learned to collaborate across agencies to share information and further strengthen program delivery; and the grantee/grantmaker relationship had improved greatly.

Additionally, the evaluation also found that optimum measure of outcomes was still under debate and that additional community discussion was needed to build consensus around outcomes.

As result, the community of nonprofits funded through the partnership worked together to come up with a single measureable outcome for each of the six priority focus areas.

Also, stakeholders had “mixed thoughts” about the nature of capacity-building funding and that better clarification about the intention and use of these grants needed to be undertaken, according to the evaluation, “All things we’ve embraced and are working on,” noted Hajra.

Shortly after TCC’s evaluation, another funder – RNR Foundation – joined in to help support the effort. (A seventh funder is expected to be announced by the end of the year.)

What has really made this relatively new concept work, acknowledged Hajra and Smith, is the ability of the six funding organizations - and the nonprofits they serve - to not view each other as competitors, but as allies aligned to make the Coordinated Funding Model a smooth, efficient and manageable construct.

The results to date?

The Coordinated Funding Initiative is helping leverage each funder’s investment in local nonprofits; minimizing duplicative work and effort for nonprofits applying for funding; reducing overlap and eliminating redundancies between funding entities; creating shared, community-level measurement of human services outcomes; and maximizing the effectiveness of funds invested in targeted critical human services for the growing number of citizens struggling to meet basic needs.

“Today, our nonprofits only have to file one grant request…and it is then viewed by our funding collaborative,” said Smith. “The system cuts out a lot of duplicative paperwork, redundant funding and makes everything transparent.”

 In a new development that the participating organizations hope can move this so-far highly successful model throughout the state and nationally, the RNR Foundation recently agreed to provide a “significant six-figure grant to fund an outcome and evaluation of the effort,” said Hajra.

“The (last) evaluation was based on the question does Coordinated Funding add value to the (grantmaking/grantee) process, and the answer was yes. This next evaluation will start to answer the question: Does Coordinated Funding make a difference for our six focus areas?

“Now TCC will be looking at the link between our activities and the actual community outcomes…and we are really excited to see those results,” said Hajra.

By the end of 2016 TCC will have completed 18 months of outcome evaluations – and a full report will be available in 2017 - “and then I think we will have a really amazing story to tell!”

Both Hajra and Smith agreed there is significant interest – both in Michigan and nationally – in the work involving Coordinated Funding and the end result could be a new, successful operating model for nonprofit organizations and their funders to review and/or adopt.

One area that the pair also agree on is the need to find new and effective ways to communicate the objectives, stories and successes of both their organizations and those of their nonprofit grantees with fellow nonprofit leaders and the public.

“There is a changing dynamic out there with traditional media, social media, etc., and new communication opportunities is one area we haven’t fully addressed yet, but need to,” said Hajra. “We have to find a way to tell this great story…and the great stories of all our terrific organizations.

“Coordinated Funding is not easy nor is it a time-saver for the organizations and their staffs who adopt it,” added Smith. “But it does provide incredible value in terms of streamlining the (grantmaking) process and providing greater accountability and transparency. It works.”

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