YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Striving to support even more organizations doing good work, the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley spent this year improving community outreach opportunities.
While many organizations have benefited from funds the community foundation has provided through the years, some may not believe the same opportunities exist for them as for a larger or more established organization.
Perhaps, they aren’t familiar with the community foundation or don’t personally know anyone who has received support. Smaller organizations may be doing great work but are unfamiliar with the grant application process, including the financial information required.
The community foundation is exploring more ways to be equitable for those who make a difference in the Mahoning Valley. “Our focus has been around moving forward our strategic planning work and intentionally thinking about how to more closely engage with the community and understand the needs of grant seekers, the organizations they represent and the clients, and better respond to those needs,” says the president of the foundation, Shari Harrell.
One way the foundation has sought to become more user friendly is reflected in its recent software changes.
First came a universal scholarship application. It allows students applying for one scholarship to be eligible for additional scholarships. Likewise, for nonprofits that seek financial support, new software is improving the process of applying for grants.
“How do we speak in conversational ways rather than philanthropic or grant lingo?” Harrell asks rhetorically. “We have focused over the last few years on being more accessible and thinking about how we connect with smaller nonprofits that don’t have a development department, don’t have a grant writer. And just because they don’t know how or have very limited time to put [together] a grant application, how can we work within our system and processes to help expedite and increase their opportunities?”
In serving as the community relations and engagement coordinator, Josh Medore determines new ways the foundation can connect to and support organizations in the community. Too frequently Medore hears people say, “I didn’t even know I was eligible,” he says. The reality, however, is that those doing charitable work often are eligible.
“People assume that foundations and grants are reserved for these big, historic institutions that have been around forever. … But the reality is, our requirements are you have to be a tax-exempt organization. So 501(c)3s, government agencies, schools, churches [qualify].”
In response to community needs, Medore began a mentoring program that matches smaller or newer charitable organizations with larger or more experienced groups. He had hoped for about 10 interested organizations. He received nearly 60.
Many organizations need more than financial support, Medore says. Sometime they need advice on how to proceed with hiring their first employees or making the next step to expand their organization.
“There were people who said, ‘I would be willing to help folks but there’s just not that environment to do it’ [and others who said] ‘I need to ask questions. But I don’t want to bother people,’ ” Harrell says.
Many of the questions asked of the foundation involve the financial information needed for grant applications. This year, Medore hosted two workshops and a virtual one to address those questions. The webinar was recorded and linked on the Community Foundation Facebook page.
Harrell says new people or organizations applying [for grants] often do not see what she calls the “big picture” of what their organizations do, instead narrowly focusing the application on the project in need of support.
“They are doing whatever their mission work is, whatever their passion is. They are not taking the time to think, How can I best present this?” Harrell says. “So we’ve been working with folks trying to assist in helping them put those stories together in a way that will be more attractive to all of the people that we work with connected with the foundation, who will be part of the decision making process.”
Since 2000, more than 200 charitable funds administered by the foundation have had a $44 million impact on the Mahoning Valley community. The foundation works with supporting organizations – the Williams-Swanson Charitable Fund, Trumbull Memorial Health Foundation and Western Reserve Health Foundation – that are separate foundations, but under the umbrella of the community foundation. The foundation helps more than 160 funds, all with different purposes and different individuals.
“It’s always a match game of what is the resource that is most aligned with the need,” Harrell says. “There’s multiple funding streams and multiple opportunities under the umbrella. It’s not just one big pot of money.”
Despite striving to fund as many as possible, the grant requests continue to become more competitive, in part because of more community outreach and the new, easier application process. There were 123 applications submitted in 2021, 193 in 2022.
It’s important for people to realize if a request goes unfunded, Harrell says, that does not mean it was not a deserving project. Maybe the decision maker seeks a certain type of project after being deeply touched by a personal tragedy. Maybe the fund has strict parameters, she says.
“That’s the hard part. There is never enough to address all the needs and interests, all the passions, everything that’s out there,” Harrell says.
Reapplying for the next round of funding may lead to success. The quarterly deadlines of the community foundation are changing in 2023 to the 15th of the first month of the quarter; it’s now the first. The next is Jan. 15.
Current financial volatility concerns everyone. But Harrell says it should not lead to a big change in the amount of money available short-term through her foundation. The organization invests conservatively and bases amounts it awards on a percentage of the 12-quarter value of investments. Those really good quarters in 2021 currently balance out recent down quarters – good news when more people may need the help of charities.
Besides helping those needing support, the Community Foundation encourages community-driven philanthropy, helping those with a desire to set up a fund or make a donation.
“Philanthropy is something anyone can do,” Medore says. “It doesn’t have to be a multimillion dollar gift or volunteering for eight hours every Saturday. Every bit helps. Anything you do to help make your community better, whether it’s through time, knowledge, money – that’s philanthropy.”
Pictured: Shari Harrell says the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley has streamlined its grant application process.