In fiscal year 2014, Berks County Community Foundation distributed $665,119 in scholarships and $2.4 million in grants from more than 300 funds set up by local individuals, families, and businesses. That’s a lot of money doing a lot of good work in the community.

As word of the grants and scholarships spreads each year, we sometimes hear concerns about how grantmaking works at the Community Foundation. I thought I’d try to address some of those concerns here.

“XYZ organization got a grant and they didn’t even apply!”

That’s probably true. Many nonprofits receive grants from the Community Foundation for which they never applied.  While it may seem like we’re practicing random acts of grantmaking, there are three main reasons that organizations receive grants without applying.

  1. The most common reason is because a donor set up an endowment fund and told us to make a grant to a specific nonprofit every year in their name forever or until the organization goes out of business. As long as the organization maintains its nonprofit status and resembles the organization the donor knew, it will get a grant check once or twice a year equal to 5 percent of whatever is in the endowment fund, no application required.
  2. The second reason is because someone set up a donor advised fund. When someone creates a donor advised fund, they recommend the organizations that should receive grants from their fund each year. The Community Foundation receives the request, checks to ensure that the organization is charitable, and then sends the grant check.
  3. The third reason is because they’re doing work that falls into one of the discretionary initiatives that our board has asked us to focus on. In the vast majority of these cases, an organization is invited to apply for a grant or submit a proposal. That submission begins the grant-consideration process. Based on our strategic plan, which was adopted in 2013, our discretionary initiatives are downtown revitalization (focused primarily on Penn Street in Reading), improving educational attainment (focused mainly on researching potential system changes), and nonprofit leadership development, primarily through our Nonprofit Leadership Institute programming.  We also have some discretionary funding for innovative health and human services programs and for increasing public access to arts programming.

 

“There’s a hidden pot of grant money.”

I can understand why it may seem that way. Because our discretionary grants are distributed based on strategic initiatives rather than through a competitive grant process, the grants may seem random.  If you’re doing work that you think may advance our initiatives, let’s talk. I meet with people all the time to learn more about their programs. Sometimes the programs are a fit with what we’re trying to achieve and sometimes they’re not. But even when they’re not, it’s good to know about them. One of the most interesting aspects about working with a community foundation is that you never know who will walk in the door tomorrow and want to start a fund for your cause.

“You need to know someone at the Community Foundation to get a grant.”

While our staff tends to know a lot of people in the community because of the nature of our work, there is no need to know someone here to apply for or receive a grant. In addition to our discretionary, donor advised, and initiative-based grantmaking, we manage several funds that run competitive grant cycles. Those grants are announced through our e-newsletter. If you don’t receive the e-newsletter, sign up now at www.bccf.org (click on “sign up for our e-newsletter” in the upper right corner). If you already signed up, make sure it’s not going in your spam folder. The e-newsletter is the primary way that we announce competitive grant cycles and other information that is important to local nonprofits. If you’re not getting it, you’re out of the loop.

“You have to be on the Community Foundation’s good side to get a grant.”

Everyone has a track record. If your organization received a grant and did not use it for the program you proposed, didn’t talk to us about issues you were having, or in some other way misused the funds, we will think twice about distributing another grant to your organization. Other than that, if you’re doing good work and making the community a better place, we’re happy to consider your application.

“You need the Community Foundation’s permission to hold a Capital Campaign.”

You do not need the Community Foundation’s permission to hold a capital campaign. Many moons ago we ran a process called the Capital Campaign Review Board. Today the Greater Reading Chamber of Commerce & Industry runs that process and we are not involved. We do not base funding decisions on whether a campaign has been approved by the Capital Campaign Review Board.

“My application got lost in the ether after I submitted it.”

Chances are it didn’t. Depending on the grant program, it can take up to 90 days to get a decision from the foundation.  We try to be in touch about a site visit (if one is needed) within a month of your application. Many of our grant applications are then considered by a committee. The committee may meet once, twice, or four times per year depending on the fund. If a grant isn’t considered by a committee, it may need to be approved by our board, which meets in February, April, June, October, and December. With the exception of a few emergency grant programs we manage (primarily for individuals), the grant consideration process will take at least 30 days and may take as many as 90.

“My project was so much better than the ones they funded.”

That may be. In some cases, a great project may not meet the parameters of a fund. For instance, if a grant is available to stage musical performances in Hamburg and an organization applies for funding to buy musical instruments for children in foster care from Birdsboro, it doesn’t matter how good the grant application is, it will be denied. Having said that, we do review all grant applications and occasionally find a different fund that is a good fit for a program. In those cases, organizations may receive a grant from a fund other than the one to which they applied.

“I never even knew that grant was available.”

Competitive grant opportunities are announced through our e-newsletter. If it’s not hitting your inbox, you may miss out. Again, sign up at www.bccf.org

“I thought they were a scholarship organization.”

We are! Nearly a third of the funds we manage are scholarship funds. The majority of our scholarships accept applications from January 15 – March 15 each year. If you know students who are getting ready to graduate from high school, send them to our website to apply.

“They wouldn’t want to talk to me.”

Sure we would. Call us at 610.685.2223 or email info@bccf.org. Your call or email will get routed to the person who can best answer your questions.

— Heidi Williamson, vice president for programs and initiatives