September 8, 2022
The following story appeared in the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland's 2021 annual report: 25 Years of Partnership and Authenticity.
Moving Beyond Feedback: Bringing Community Members to Grantmaking
In 2021, the foundation created a new program area focused on health equity and tapped longtime Promise Neighborhood engagement manager Joseph Black to be program officer.
Black’s connections in the Central community were essential to the new program area, which intends to involve Central residents as partners in SOCF’s grantmaking process.
The Good Samaritan Grants Program, SOCF Cleveland’s responsive grant program for basic needs, served as a launch pad for community involvement in grant review.
Initiated in 1996, the Good Samaritan Grants Program supports nonprofit organizations for which a modest grant would make a difference in continuing to provide necessary and immediate goods and services to individuals living in poverty. As the pandemic persisted, we saw the need for basic-needs support grow and narrowed the focus of the Good Samaritan program to prioritize organizations within the Central community. In April 2020, the foundation established a Fast Response Team of board members to review grant applications on a weekly basis to ensure resources were rapidly distributed to the community.
"When it comes to providing essential resources, trying to be both rapid and responsive requires ground-level voices," said Black. "The Promise Ambassador program helped connect me to individuals who were deeply involved in the community and could help us better understand the needs and priorities of residents."
Black set out to establish the first-ever Community Response Team at SOCF. Three Promise ambassadors, two of whom already gained some grant writing and review experience through Neighborhood Connections, were invited to review Good Samaritan applications and provide feedback to help SOCF’s board make more informed funding decisions.
The Community Response Team reads and ranks applications and submits recommendations to the Fast Response Team, who make a final decision. Community Response Team members develop experience in sharing presentations, reviewing grants—and in turn, understanding different and better ways to write applications—and collaborating with leaders and strategic thinkers from across greater Cleveland.
For the board, the Community Response Team provided significant insight on how to prioritize the needs of Central and which organizations are doing work that the community values. Their recommendations are weighed heavily, especially in circumstances of comparable applications.
“It has been enlightening to collaborate with the Community Response Team in the grantmaking process,” said Woodrow Whitlow, Jr., Ph.D, SOCF Cleveland board chair. “The team members have the most knowledge about the needs of community and provide valuable advice on those grants that will have the greatest impact. Their insights and influence have made the foundation’s grantmaking a much more effective tool in addressing the needs of those we serve.”
Before the Community Response Team, SOCF staff reviewed Good Samaritan submissions and considered funding needs based on quantitative evidence like reports and evaluations, which are important factors but don’t always tell an entire story. With the Community Response Team in place, residents can share their perspective of organizations and services they witness in the neighborhood. This builds trust and accountability
among the foundation and its neighbors in a meaningful new way.
COMMUNITY RESPONSE IN ACTION
In the Central neighborhood, Friendly Inn Settlement House has been a community hub since the mid-19th century. It houses childcare, neighborhood services, a recreation center, computer lab, meal programs and more. Over the last several years, SOCF Cleveland has supported Friendly Inn only through discretionary funding for annual activities like the Back to School Rally. In 2021, a member of the Community Response
Team connected with Friendly Inn’s executive director and encouraged her to apply for the Good Samaritan grant. SOCF Cleveland awarded Friendly Inn funds to support its food pantry, which has grown exponentially in service since the start of the pandemic.
Though established in part to respond to COVID-related needs, the Community Response Team will be a fixture of the Good Samaritan Grant Program into the future. Black has outlined succession planning for resident involvement, with terms of service and opportunities for new participants. Black selected the first members of the team based on his deep connections in Central, and he hopes that participants will continue to nominate peers and partners to serve in the years ahead.
"I believe that this deep connection would not have been possible had it not been for engaging residents in the review process and intentionally investing in organizations that are known and respected in the community," Black said.
In fact, the Community Response Team served as a pilot of sorts for resident involvement in grantmaking across the entire health equity program area. In 2022, Black will propose a Resident Advisory Committee to operate much in the same way for strategic grants as the Community Response Team does for responsive grants. Black said that between these teams, there will be anywhere from 10 to 15 residents informing and influencing grantmaking decisions within the health equity program area at any given time.
"To be effective partners in the community, we need to solidify trust," Black said. "While the needs are vastly complicated, the Community Response Team has been an invaluable first step in connecting with our community in a deeper, authentic way."