Grantmaking decisions are typically made behind closed doors in foundation offices and boardrooms, far away from open view and public input. This is the way that traditional philanthropy has operated for generations and often the most efficient way of handing out money for private foundations, community funders, giving circles, and other grantmaking entities.

But every once in a while, grantmaking decisions are brought a little more out into the open so that the general public can get a say in where charitable funds are needed most. We’ve reported on the growth of participatory grantmaking, where funders cede power to nonprofits. A variation of this approach is putting putting grants up to public votes.

While this strategy can be susceptible to gaming, with nonprofits organize voting drives to, it can also be a way to help local funders better understand what the biggest priorities are in a community and adapt to these interests.

One example of this strategy is the Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties’ (CFHOC) Community Choice Awards, which is a contest that (partially) puts grantmaking decisions in the hands of local residents and last month completed its second round, making $85,000 in grants to nine local organizations

The New York community foundation selected eight topical categories and invited nonprofits to submit brief grant proposals to be considered for each of them. These topics were animal welfare, arts and culture, City of Copper nonprofits, education, health and wellness, human services, seniors, and sports and recreation.

It’s important to understand that CFHOC is a large community foundation with over 300 charitable funds and assets of over $140 million. It typically invests over $5 million in grants each year and seems to add new funds to its collection with each grant cycle that passes. The Community Choice Awards are made possible by eight of these individual funds held at CFHOC, which are sponsoring the specific categories they care about. For example, the Bull Family Fund is sponsoring the arts and culture category, while the David & Janet Griffith Family Fund is sponsoring the health and wellness category.

Something to note in all of this is that the foundation staff, along with “category sponsors,” were initially consulted to select three finalists in each of the eight categories before the public sees anything. This perhaps makes grant decisions more manageable for public viewing and narrow down the high volume of viable options. The public was invited to vote online between during a two-week period to choose the winners from that narrowed-down list in each category.

After selecting winners, the CFHOC staff, trustees, and category sponsors presented the nonprofits with checks and celebration. This year, the winners were Mohawk Valley Jr. Frontiers (education), Uptown Theatre for Creative Arts (arts and culture), ICAN (human services), Project Fibonacci (City of Copper), Sitrin Health Care Center (health), Abraham House (seniors), and Herkimer County Humane Society (animal welfare). A special board recognition award went to Rescue Mission of Utica.

In addition to this public voting grantmaking endeavor, CFHOC has been awarding more traditional grants as well. In its most recent cycle of giving, CFHOC awarded over $507,000 to 22 nonprofits through its competitive process in the areas of education, economic development, health and wellness, and arts and culture. Meanwhile, the community funder distributed 98 grants totaling almost $633,000 from its donor-advised funds, and it also added six new funds to its collection.

These new funds will be supporting guide dogs, multi-use trails, animals, and communities where ministries of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities have a presence. The funder also continues to host ongoing nonprofit webinars on topics like the giving of millennials and effective gift acknowledgements.

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