The Charlottesville City Council convened on Wednesday evening with Interim City Manager Michael Rogers and Krisy Hammil, Senior Budget and Management Analyst, as well as staff members from the Vibrant Community Fund to discuss nonprofit funding. The Vibrant Community Fund is a City-run agency tasked with reviewing funding requests for community agencies and making recommendations to Charlottesville City Council on which programs to fund.
The meeting primarily focused on the application process for local nonprofits to receive money from the Vibrant Community Fund, and the breakdown of organizations that received funding for 2023. The meeting was the second budget work session of the fiscal year, aimed to provide a forum for the Council to discuss budgeting priorities.
Misty Graves, interim director of the Department of Human Services, opened conversation on the Vibrant Community Fund panel, which is in charge of reviewing nonprofit requests for City funds and making recommendations to the City Council. Ultimately, City Council and the Charlottesville City Manager make the final decisions on which requests will be funded.
The Vibrant Community Fund has six broad funding priorities — education and youth, jobs and wages, community and public safety, affordable housing, health and equity. Equity is the most recent addition to the funding priorities — it first appeared in the 2022 VCF report and for fiscal year 2023 was intentionally included throughout the application process.
In the 2023 fiscal year, the VCF has provided funding to 31 programs, all of which were considered either “essential” or “important” to VCF’s six priorities. Among the programs funded are the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, which requested $250,000 and received $87,500 and the Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville which received $42,250 of their requested $65,000.
Graves addressed the importance of the VCF’s work in funding these projects.
“I think it’s an incredible thing to mention that we were able to fund 31 different projects and priorities that build our city’s capacity to meet the needs of community members here,” Graves said.
In order to request funding from the VCF, community members must attend an orientation where they learn important details about the application process and priority areas to focus on. They then must complete an application that is rated by a panel of community members with nonprofit or grant making experience as well as city staff members. Panel members rate each application individually and then come together to discuss applicants as a group.
According to Hunter Smith, lead staff at the Vibrant Community Fund, the applications are ranked by importance in addressing priority areas as well as the quality of the plan and fiscal feasibility.
Those considered “essential” constitute a service without which the City could not sufficiently address a priority area, while organizations designated “important” may be a necessary part addressing a priority area or providing a service needed to improve the well-being of the community. Organizations can also receive a ranking of “helpful,” meaning they address a priority or uphold community well-being to the current level, or one of “not relevant.”
In addition to the new equity priority, application and evaluation processes now request diversity, equity and inclusion statements from prospective organizations. Smith voiced his belief that the addition of a diversity, equity and inclusion statement communicated the City’s belief in the importance of diversity in funding processes and generated open communication about diversity, equity and inclusion.
“The inclusion of these questions highlighted how some organizations are demonstrating active work towards improvements in DEI, where others may need to take a closer look at where they can improve,” Smith said. “We did see an array of responses to that.”
According to Graves, the Vibrant Community Fund provides an opportunity for what he calls capacity building — developing the skills and resources of outside organizations — and collaboration between outside organizations and the City. Graves highlighted how community volunteers along with staff members and the Budget Office have worked on the Vibrant Community Fund to review and make recommendations regarding City funding for nonprofits.
“I’m proud and grateful for the commitment and contributions of this collaborative effort.” Graves said.
The Vibrant Community Fund initially set aside $200,000 for startup organizations, but based on the application pool this year, only $65,000 of that was awarded to new organizations. Smith said that only one of three startup applications was scored sufficiently high by VCF to be awarded funds. However, Smith hopes to use capacity-building funds — designated to be used by potential startups to increase resources, train workers, and improve their application — to aid those that previously did not qualify for funding.
“One of the three [startup applicants] was able to demonstrate the ability to be funded, which is why we need to go back and look at the startup process and figure out what didn’t work, what went wrong.” Smith said. “The capacity building, what we’re hoping to use that for is to help those organizations that did not score high and did not receive funding in that category to spend some time building them up and seeing what they need help with.”
Smith made sure to note the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on nonprofit agencies. According to him, some agencies continue to focus on emergency relief instead of their previous goals. Additionally, nonprofits have continued to utilize virtual services and reported a loss of revenue from the pandemic has caused an increase in funding requests.
“There was some reported loss of revenue due to COVID-19 as well, and increased funding requests due to that, so these things are still pertinent this year.” Smith said.
According to Hammill, a variety of organizations and programs additionally rely on City funding for positions and projects through contractual relationships — among them the Jefferson Madison Regional Library and the Albemarle Charlottesville Public Defender's Office. City funds for contractual agencies are decided by the budget office and do not go through the same panel judgment as VCF funding requests.
Council heard public comment during the meeting, and several leaders of nonprofit organizations as well as community members spoke to request that the VCF and City Council provide funding to their preferred organizations.
For example, resident Andrew Pennock called in to the meeting to support a project that would extend the Meadowcreek multi-use trail in Greenbriar and add accessible walking paths. While Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade expressed support for the project, Mayor Lloyd Snook clarified that VCF funds cannot be used for extending the trail — but assured the caller that Council will look into available funds for the issue.
There will be public hearings April 4, before the City Council budget approval meeting on April 12. The public hearings will allow community members to hear and offer feedback through public comment on the City’s budget, school reconfiguration, a proposed tax increase, and other budget matters. In addition to public hearings, there will be two more worksessions, one regarding the Capital Improvement Program on March 31, and the next scheduled for April 4 for Council and staff to go over any remaining budget concerns before City approval.