Credit: Photo by Kate Masters

Council President Nancy Navarro is pitching a bill that would create a new executive office for grants management — part of a larger effort to reform a process of funding community agencies.

Navarro announced the Office of Grants Management on Monday at her last press briefing as council president. It would centralize two sources of grant funding currently delivered by county government.

Both the county executive and the County Council award community grants through separate application processes, a system Navarro described as “confusing” to many nonprofits.

Organizations can apply for funding through the county executive’s office, the County Council, or both. They must complete two separate applications if requesting funding from both in a single year. 

The new office would consolidate the two funding sources and develop countywide policies and procedures for awarding grants. The office would be required to maintain a database to track grant awards and deliver quarterly reports to the council and county executive.

“I think, number one, it’s just good government,” Navarro said after her press briefing on Monday. “And number two, I think it’s predictability and consistency for our organizations.

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If passed, the bill would be one of the first steps in a larger plan to reform the county’s grants process — a concern for council members since at least 2002.

Since the council began reviewing its grant-giving policies in the late 1990s, members have noticed that the same organizations often receive the same funding year after year, according to a 2018 report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight.

Many are nonprofits that provide important services to the county, but aren’t included in the yearly budget, Navarro said.

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The Montgomery Coalition for the Homeless, for example, provides shelter to men without housing largely thanks to community grants from the county. The Montgomery County Food Council, another nonprofit working to end food insecurity, is also funded largely through community grants.

Navarro hopes that within the next two years, the county will review grant recipients on both the executive and council side. The review will determine which organizations should be funded through the base budget, rather than competing with other nonprofits for grants.

“Obviously, these are organizations we value,” Navarro said. “And if we value their services, they should go in the base budget versus occupying space in the grants program. That way, we open it up to organizations or programs who are more innovative in scope.”

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The changes have sparked concern from some local nonprofits that aren’t sure how they’ll be affected by the new grant process.

As the number of funding requests has grown — from 219 in fiscal year 2015 to 365 in fiscal year 2019 — it’s become clear that a streamlined process would benefit both the county government and community organizations, said Lesley MacDonald, the executive director of Nonprofit Montgomery, an alliance of leaders from many local charities. 

But some organizations worry that the reforms will affect funding for vital services. MacDonald has been working with the council and executive office to bring nonprofits into the decision-making process, an effort to assuage concerns and ensure their perspective is represented.

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“I was worried if they didn’t have input from nonprofits, there would be unintended consequences,” MacDonald said.

The county still hasn’t clarified which nonprofits would be funded through the annual budget and how that determination would be made. The proposed changes would also make the grants process outcomes-driven, assessing not only how the organizations spent their money, but whether they were achieving their stated goals.

That requires a different type of reporting than some organizations practice, MacDonald said. As the plan moves forward, she hopes the county will help local nonprofits adjust to the new system and establish a transparent process for moving some organizations to the base budget.

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“It’s a big change,” she said. “So, everybody’s nervous. But I think there’s also a sense of optimism because the county is really listening.”