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Danville needs new approach to community funding

By ELAINE WILSON-REDDY

Contributing columnist

“Please, Sir. I want some more.”

— Oliver, the Musical

It’s that time of year again. Birds are chirping. Daffodils are blooming. Pollen makes us sneeze, cry and itch. And local non-profits make their pitch to the Danville City Commission.

I admit up front that I have not done a lot of research on the history of this event. I don’t know how long the city has offered supplemental funding opportunities to area nonprofits, nor do I know why they began. What I do know is that the process needs some structure and hard boundaries.

Many years ago, I made this trip for a couple of different non-profits. It’s not that big of a deal. A little paperwork is required and then a representative gives their best sales pitch as to why their organization deserves city money.

What I have heard over the past few years is that city revenue is down while costs for running the city increase. It happens in our households as well. When there’s more month than money, sacrifices must be made. We want to keep the lights on, the water running, and vital services at their best.

Maybe it’s time to revamp this giving program and make it look more like grants than donations.

Here’s what I think:

First, the city must commit to a finite amount of money that will be available. It could decrease, but it won’t increase.

Second, set a firm grant cycle. I propose a five-year cycle but I’m the one writing, so I can say what I think. This gives the organizations breathing room and cuts down on the time it takes each year to vet all of the requests.

Third, if an organization receives funding, they know that this funding will disappear at the end of the five year cycle. The city can fund the same amount, if fiscally responsible and possible, for three years of the cycle. In the fourth year, the base amount is cut 40 percent. The last year, the base amount is cut 60 percent. Knowing exactly when the grant cycle will end allows the organizations to find new funding and wean themselves from city money.

I once heard an accountant speak back when the Sarbanes-Oxley Act took effect. The accountant told a roomful of executives and fundraisers that we needed to stop calling ourselves “non-profit” organizations and start using the term “tax-exempt business.” It completely changed my perspective on fundraising.

Organizations that have official IRS 501(c)3 status are tax-exempt businesses. All of them must somehow create profit in order to conduct their business. When we think of nonprofits, we think of organizations that help make lives better and allow communities to grow. I have worked for several non-profits over the years. What I know for sure is if they aren’t run like a for-profit business, they can’t achieve their mission.

Non-profits, or tax-exempt businesses, have missions that tug at our heartstrings. Who can say no to housing the homeless, feeding seniors, giving children mentors or saving animals from the streets? These are all incredibly important, vital missions.

Is it the Danville taxpayers’ responsibility to fund all of the tax exempt businesses that ask for funding? What about the ones that don’t ask and function without city money? If my tax money is used to run the organization, doesn’t that make me a donor?

I know this sounds harsh coming from lefty-liberal me, but if a local tax-exempt business cannot sustain itself without city funding, maybe it isn’t viable as a business.

The city is between a rock and a hard place. Our first responders started a conversation regarding lack of raises and concern over retention. Do we want first responders at full capacity or do we want to continue to fund tax exempt businesses? Does the city fund some tax exempt businesses but not others? What are the criteria?

Area non-profit, tax exempt organizations/businesses meet incredible, heartbreaking needs on a daily basis. They are vital to keeping Danville healthy. They deserve to know how much funding the city will give without the rug being jerked from under them. But they also need to be able to sustain their work with less city money.

And by the way, do these organizations also request EQUAL or more funding from the county? Since Danville is also in the county and the county has a larger population than the city, it would seem that the fiscal court would have at least as much, if not more, opportunity to fund community agencies. Right?