Two dozen people sat in a conference room at Baltimore City Community College with stacks of paper, highlighters and empty bags of chips scattered around.
They included teachers, recent high school graduates and veteran community organizers. Some couldn’t yet legally drink; others were nearing retirement age. The majority were African-American, reflecting the city as a whole.
They’ve spent weeks working through a massive task: Reading more than 400 applications from organizations seeking a slice of the city’s inaugural $12 million Children and Youth Fund, and recommending winners and losers.
There will be more of the latter than the former. The requests total $75 million — more than six times the amount available.
The fund, proposed by Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young after the unrest of 2015, and approved by voters the following year, will provide taxpayer dollars to organizations that work with the city’s young people.
Advocates for the fund say the grants will be transformative for many community, minority-led organizations that have typically been passed over for city funding, which tends to favor more well-established groups.
“Since the uprising of 2015 here in Baltimore, the nonprofit sector has had to come to the realization that folks in the community feel alienated from nonprofits and don’t feel there’s adequate funding for authentic support in the community,” said Dayvon Love of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, who is helping with the fund’s administration. “This is a very innovative approach to grant-making.”
The response was overwhelming. Organizers expect to inform applicants whether they’ve been selected by the end of the month.
Some applicants have expressed frustration at the time it has taken to distribute dollars they say are desperately needed.
Hundreds attended community meetings before the application deadline last month seeking information on how to get a piece of the fund.
They included individuals and groups that wanted to fund a new basketball program, mentor young boys in honor of men who were murdered and expand an organization that serves homeless girls.
Many had never applied for a grant before — they had cobbled together shoestring budgets with small fundraisers or donations. Others had tried to get grants, but didn’t have the qualifications necessary to stand out in a more traditional grant review process.
Cameron Miles is waiting anxiously to hear the grant reviewers’ decision.
He’s led the nonprofit Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood for more than two decades, with the goal of keeping Baltimore’s young men out of prisons and cemeteries. He’s won a few small grants in recent years, but his work is largely sustained by donations from everyday people. He operates out of donated space at the New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore.
Miles refers to his charges, ages eight to 18, as “Young Kings.” He has taken them to Harvard, Yale and Howard universities to show them what college life could be like. They recently returned from Syracuse, where they toured the campus in shirts that said, “Failure is not an option.”
Miles leads workshops on how to tie a tie, how to succeed in a job interview, how to perform CPR. He takes the boys on an annual visit to Maryland Shock Trauma.
“I want them to see what can happen if you pick up a gun or a knife or do something out of anger,” he said. But it’s equally important, he added, to show them the possibilities of becoming a nurse, X-ray technician or anesthesiologist.
It’s hard, Miles said, when he knows his record of success, yet sees big, outside organizations coming into the city and easily securing millions of dollars. Miles is seeking a $150,000 to $200,000 cut of the fund.
He said such a grant would enable him to take the boys on more college visits or hire more tutors.
He could also start paying himself a salary for the job he’s done for free since 1996.
“This is our twenty-second year,” he said. “I’ve been consistent. What do you have to do get the big grants? I have a board. We have 501(c)(3) status.”
The 24 grant reviewers gave each application a score out of 30 points. They ranked each proposal based on the way it aligns with Youth Fund priorities: Is the work driven and led by youth voices? Does the group have a record of authentic engagement? Will it be accountable to local communities?
They also scored applications on whether their proposals were feasible and their budgets justified. Grants will be awarded in the range of $5,000 to $500,000.
The reviewers used different criteria from a traditional grant process. Whereas letters from public officials might sway an establishment foundation, this group was interested in whether applicants had the support of community members and youth.
Love said the reviewers took a range of backgrounds and experience into the closed-door sessions.
During one conversation, he said, someone asked pointed questions about an applicant.
“Are the folks leading the organization new to the neighborhood?” the reviewer asked, according to Love. “Are they part of an effort of gentrification?”
“Another person piped up who said, ‘No, I know those folks and they know the neighborhood,’” Love said.
Reviewers received a stipend of $1,300. Associated Black Charities is managing the fund and will use $1.2 million of it on administrative costs. The group will conduct fiscal reviews — such as checking groups’ budgets and past audits — and negotiate contracts with the groups recommended by the grant reviewers. Background checks will also be performed.
The city’s contribution to the youth fund is determined by the value of all assessed property. The current estimate of the city's assessed base is $40.4 billion, meaning $12 million was funneled to the youth fund for the budget year that began July 1.
It’s expected to go up as the value of property increases in future years.
Diane Bell-McKoy, the president of Associated Black Charities, wants the youth fund to show the broader philanthropic community just how many groups are working in Baltimore to change young people’s lives.
“I hope it will be a multiplier,” she said.
As the grant reviewers wrapped up their final meeting last week, they reflected on the long process and the power they were given to influence the distribution of millions of dollars. Organizers asked for grant reviewer’s identities to remain private, so they aren’t bombarded with questions about the fund and who will get money.
With so many strong applicants, one woman said, choosing winners was difficult.
“We had to make a decision not about which applicant was better,” she said, “but about what was right for what is going on here.”