Hillsborough County taxpayers help pay for a host of nonprofit organizations, including shelters for battered women and neglected children and museums such as the Tampa Bay History Center.
Yet the county has done little to ensure that the tax money is spent effectively.
Now, stricter guidelines are on the way that should provide better oversight and guarantee all requests from nonprofits are judged fairly and competitively.
“It’s taking the political influence out of it and asking, ‘Is this a service the county needs? And if so, who does it best?’
A subcommittee of the advisory committee worked eight months to develop the revised guidelines. Vickers presented the recommendations to county commissioners on April 10.
The exercise was not meant to weed out nonprofits because they are “wasting money,” Vickers said, although some organizations will likely lose their county allotment if commissioners adopt the process.
Several nonprofit leaders interviewed recently said their organizations already employ accountability measures and should fare well in the coming competition for county support.
“It’s very competitive to get funding,” said Ann Madsen, director of the Centre for Women. “But for a long time the center has developed metrics for measuring outcomes. It’s part of what we do as a business.”
The center, which is getting $39,293 from the county this year, works with women who are drug-addicted. Beyond just showing how many women go through the program, Madsen said the center has to show its funders the women remain drug free, understand the concept underlying their addiction, can reunite with family members and/or children, get a job or go to school, and participate in both group and individual counseling.
The new rules limit nonprofits to one year of funding from the county commission, and they can’t reapply for three years. Many groups stay on the funding list year after year once they’re approved.
If a group does a good job with one-year’s worth of money, Vickers said, it can go through a more-detailed vetting process for funding on a more regular basis.
The idea, he said, is to put a structure in place to evaluate all nonprofits uniformly and allow them to compete so the county supports the most effective organizations.
“It’s more about trying to find a sustainable funding model for the nonprofits because there are a lot of organizations doing great things in the community,” he said. “The question always should be: Should the county be funding this nonprofit to do this function?”
Some nonprofits supported by the county do a better job of measuring results and delivering services because they have to compete for the money, Vickers said. These are groups that answered requests for applications, or RFAs, from a specific county department, such as Family and Aging Services.
The other nonprofits, which received less vetting, won their public money by appealing directly to the county commission.
“Any nonprofit that goes directly to the Board of County Commissioners to obtain funding through this development process, after that initiation year, they have to go through the RFA process if they want to get recurring funding,” Vickers said.
This could be contentious considering that some nonprofits have been getting county money for a decade or more.
Commissioner Les Miller expressed reservations at the April 10 meeting, saying he worried nonprofits would be forced to compete without adequate time to prepare. County Administrator Mike Merrill’s staff is to have a detailed plan to implement the guidelines by June 1.
“I understand to a certain extent that they have to do that,” Miller said, referring to the accountability measures, “but we have some not-for-profits that do a lot for this county. I have a concern if they are not funded we will all lose.”
Some of the agencies receiving county money are iconic institutions that commissioners will find it hard to cut loose. The Children’s Home, which received $100,521 from the county this year, has been providing a safe haven for abused, neglected and abandoned children for 120 years.
Professionals at the home follow through when children are placed with relatives or in foster homes to make sure they are stable, said Irene Rickus, chief executive officer. If they don’t get better at the Children’s Home and need a higher level of mental health care someplace else, organizations supporting them know that, she said.
“We’re always concerned when our funders are changing the method of funding,” Rickus conceded, “but on the other hand, we think we’re one of the oldest and one of the most credible providers, and I see them continuing to support our work.”
Cathy Capo Stone, executive director of Cornerstone Family Ministries, agrees that governments or other groups that fund her agency should expect positive outcomes that can be measured.
But those measurements should consider the population served by the nonprofit, Stone said. Cornerstone, which received $17,000 from the county this year, offers nutritional and educational programs to poor children and their families.
“I think a partnership between the funder and the nonprofit in developing realistic outcomes to be measured is the best approach, especially if the amount funded is less than requested,” Stone said in an email.
Vickers agreed the county should work with the nonprofits in developing a system to measure how well an organization is doing its job.
“There is not one measure that you can use to measure all nonprofits,” Vickers said. “That’s one of the areas I think the nonprofits can help the county understand.”