United Way cuts grants to agencies

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Even as the United Way of the Pikes Peak Region celebrates the end of its annual campaign Tuesday, some community groups have less to be happy about.

That’s because some of the nonprofits that get money from United Way’s community fund are getting less this year — partly as an effort to maintain its reserves, and partly because of a new focus on early childhood education intervention.

“We told our nonprofits last year that we would be giving 34 percent of the money to the ‘Success by Six’ program,” said United Way President and CEO JD Dallager. “And for the past four years, we’ve taken out of our reserves to bolster community nonprofits — to the tune of about $1 million a year. The board decided not to do that this year.”

United Way gave $2 million a year in grants during the last two-year funding cycle, according to the organization’s website. This year, it’s dropped that down to $1.5 million. The total is broken up for the first time: $990,000 for safety-net services and $510,000 for Success by Six programs.

When faced with the choice, the all-volunteer allocation committee decided to focus on immediate needs in the community.

Less money in the community fund equals fewer dollars at some nonprofits. The Energy Resource Center saw a drop of about 15 percent, and while Early Connections Learning Centers saw their programs cut from $212,000 to $167,000. And some programs, like the already struggling Urban League had its $23,075 grant cut to zero.

Urban League also was removed as one of the United Way’s partner programs because of its financial struggles, Dallager said.

Empty handed

Nine programs that had received money in the past got nothing this year, said Susan Oldfield, chairwoman of the community impact committee. Among them, Consumer Credit Counseling Services, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Girl Scouts of the Pikes Peak region.

“We had to make some tough decisions,” she said. “We had over $3 million in request in the safety net services, and only $990,000 to allocate.”

The decision about which nonprofits received grants — and how much — was done by a group of 100 community volunteers. The group split into smaller groups who visited nonprofits and listened to their pitches for grant funding.

“We really looked at it this year from the standpoint of what their mission was, their goals, how the community’s needs were being met, how they were tracking success,” Oldfield said.

After they heard pitches, the groups scored each nonprofit and then individually allocated money, said Carrie Cram, vice president of community impact for United Way. Then the group meets again and averages the allocations. The board of directors has the final say.

The group used the United Way’s Quality of Life Indicators report as a guideline for the grants, she said.

“And we went with the best of the best,” she said. “In order to apply for United Way funding, you really have to be very good at what you do.”

Nonprofits were expecting cuts, but were still hoping their programs might be better funded.

“We were surprised,” said Howard Brooks, executive director for ERC, which provides energy-efficient furnaces for low income households. “Paying utility costs is the No. 1 reason people call the 211 hotline — we are providing a response to the No. 1 need in the community. So, we thought they might not cut the grant for that reason.”

Brooks says the nonprofit will explore other options to make up for the loss of money. In 2010-2012, ERC received $35,500. For the next two years, it will get $29,005 each year.

“We have a fee-for-service program for people who can afford to pay us,” he said. “We’ll cover some of the costs with that money — and we’ll increase fundraising.”

If they had more money, they would do more, Brooks said.

“Unfortunately, we have a yearlong waiting list for this service,” he said.

Like the Energy Resource Center, Silver Key has other funding agencies than just the United Way. Silver Key also received less money, but the loss wasn’t unexpected.

“We were told up front that there would be 25 percent less money than this year,” said Lori Orwig, director of resource development for Silver Key. “And they told us that the volunteers just rated it less of a need. It’s understandable, in this economy, that we’d face less grant money.”

Silver Key’s care management program was cut from $27,000 for the 2010-2012 cycle to $10,594 for the next two years.

El Pomar, the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Pikes Peak Regional Transit Authority all pay Silver Key for its transportation programs. The agency also gets a “big chunk” of money from individual donors.

“We’ll keep working to meet the needs,” Orwig said. We’ll keep making sure the clients are well taken care of. That’s our job.”

Other nonprofits made the United Way funding list for the first time, as it switched its focus to Success by Six.

“We even took the step — for the first time in our 90-year history — of reaching out to non-partner agencies in this effort,” Dallager said. “We wanted the best of the best, if we were going to make a difference.”

Diakonia’s community center preschools received $7,498 for the first time. The Pikes Peak Library District Foundation’s early books, early reading program received $9,869. Child Care Connections also received a $13,000 grant for the first time.

Changing its way

United Way decided to focus on early childhood education programs after its annual Quality of Life Indicators showed the city’s third graders falling behind in reading test scores. In order to raise reading levels by third grade, the United Way is helping fund programs that teach children to read before then — even before school starts — the birth of the “Success by Six” program.

“And rather than boil the ocean, we decided to focus on (Colorado Springs) District 11 and (Harrison) District Two,” Dallager said. “That’s where 75 percent of the children who need early intervention live. So that’s where we’re focusing our efforts.”

Changes in funding don’t reflect poor performance on the part of the nonprofits, Oldfield said. The volunteers struggled to make the decisions.

“It was a tough year,” she said. “All these nonprofits were well-run, all are doing good work, all are fiscally responsible. If we had more money, we could have funded more. That’s what we need, more donations into the community funds. Then we could help more.”