City street in Baltimore City shows few trees.
Increased equity in grant funding would be a benefit to underserved communities such as in East Baltimore, where ReBUILD Metro works with community members to revitalize homes and green neighborhoods without displacing people. Photo by Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

On September 15th, 2022, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) hosted a panel discussion on equitable access to grant funding during its quarterly meeting in Washington, D.C.

The CAC is a group of volunteers representing communities and stakeholders from across the Chesapeake Bay watershed that advises the leadership within the Chesapeake Bay Program. The committee travels across the region to learn and discuss state and local priorities related to water quality, living resources, wildlife habitats, community engagement and other priorities outlined in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

In 2020, the Chesapeake Executive Council signed a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) Statement to commit the Chesapeake Bay Program to “equitable, just and inclusive engagement of all communities living throughout the watershed.” Inspired by this statement, the CAC used its September 2022 meeting to assess how accessible and equitable the grant funding process is for community organizations within the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The panel consisted of three parts: a discussion with community organizations on the frontline of environmental engagement and restoration, a presentation from a contractor who evaluated systematic community engagement barriers within the Chesapeake Bay Program and a conversation with leaders from a prominent funder of Chesapeake Bay restoration.

The goal of the panel was to understand if grant eligibility requirements and priorities set by resource providers lead to funding disparities, and what efforts are needed to advance the capacity of organizations that do not meet these requirements.

Grant barriers for front-line organizations

For the opening panel, three community groups shared their experience with applying for and maintaining grants to fund their work.

Panelists included Albert Arévelo of Latino Outdoors, a regional organization working to inspire, connect and engage Latino communities in the outdoors, Jenny Guillaume and Daniel Kravetz of ReBUILD Metro, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works with community members to revitalize homes and green neighborhoods without displacing people, and Nathan Harrington of Ward 8 Woods Conservancy, a grassroots nonprofit that works to rejuvenate and enhance the 500+ acres of forest in the Ward 8 section of Washington, D.C.

The panelists engaged in a discussion that identified grant requirements that often prevent organizations from qualifying for funding and offered their recommendations to overcome them. From the discussion, several common barriers were identified:

  • Confusing language. Often, the language comprising applications is very technical, requiring the applicant to have advanced knowledge of scientific and administrative terminology and previous experience in grant writing.
  • Human capital. Some small, frontline groups lack the human and experiential resources to develop the type of proposal required by federal agencies and other Bay Program partners.
  • Upfront costs. Many grants reimburse recipients for costs spent to start their project. However, not all organizations have the financial capacity to make these upfront investments.
  • Federal requirements. Federal grant requirements, such as submitting financial audit reports, using approved accounting systems, providing various insurances, etc., are prohibitive in many ways.
  • Matching fund requirements. Grants that require organizations to match the funds being allocated excludes those with limited liquid capital.
  • Award criteria. The metrics used to evaluate grant proposals tend to be technical, quantitative and built around pollution reduction calculations, while benefits related to education, community engagement and other public benefits are overlooked.

A detailed report of the panel’s findings can be viewed here.

Investigating systematic barriers

The second part of the panel was a presentation by Gabrielle Roffe, manager of equity and community engagement at the Chesapeake Conservancy.

Roffe shared her experience as a contractor to a Chesapeake Bay Program project that sought to identify systemic issues within the partnership that limit full engagement of communities. Throughout the project, Roffe held conversations with Bay Program staff and community members, assessed the needs of organizations with limited social and financial resources and determined where the Bay Program fell on the “spectrum of community engagement to ownership,” a tool used to build the capacity of communities to resolve climate change threats that are affecting them.

Two key recommendations that Roffe shared were that funding should be allocated at a local level with fewer barriers to resources, and that projects must not be limited to water quality and pollution reduction goals.

Insight from a major Bay restoration funder

The final part of the panel was a conversation with Jake Reilly and Joe Toolan, director and manager of Chesapeake Bay programs at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). NFWF administers two federally funded grant programs—Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants and Small Watershed Grants —that are closely tied to water quality outcomes and other goals in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, which the Bay Program seeks to achieve.

The NFWF panelists and CAC members offered some ideas on how to expand grant access such as training and proposal writing assistance for organizations applying for Chesapeake Bay watershed grants. Additionally, the NFWF panelists and CAC members suggested that grant funding should be allocated to build the capacity of frontline community organizations whose primary needs are focused on community engagement and local priorities rather than direct water quality pollution reduction.

An overall finding from the day’s panel is that many of the existing Chesapeake Bay grants may not be effective in meeting the Chesapeake Bay Program’s DEIJ goals . Therefore, separate resource and grant mechanisms designed to build capacity of small, local organizations could serve as a pipeline for more frontline community access to substantial environmental funding.

One thing is for certain, the work to achieve “equitable, just and inclusive engagement of all communities living throughout the watershed” is just beginning. Inclusive conversations, such as this panel, allow for greater understanding of the needs, challenges and perspectives of the diverse communities and organizations of our watershed.

As CAC Stewardship & Engagement Subcommittee Chair, Charles Herrick, said, “the grant making and grant execution solutions offered through this panel can help turn the Chesapeake Bay Program's vision for DEIJ into an everyday, tangible reality."

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