United Way Says it Will Step Away from City of Cincinnati's Human Services Funding Process Next Year

Some members of Cincinnati City Council want the administration of the city's human services funding brought in-house should United Way exit the process. Others, however, are adamantly opposed to that idea.

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

For a decade, the City of Cincinnati has decided how to divvy up the money it uses to fund outside human services organizations tackling poverty, neighborhood violence and other issues by relying on recommendations from a board administered by the United Way.

That will likely change soon, however. 

Discussions in Cincinnati City Council's Budget and Finance Committee revealed that the city and United Way are parting ways on that partnership. 

That conversation comes as some on council have asked questions about whether the city should take the process back — or farm it out to another agency.

Currently, the city taps a board called the Human Services Advisory Committee, overseen by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, to make calls about city funding for organizations fighting poverty, helping Cincinnatians find employment, pushing back against the drug addiction crisis and other efforts. This year, HSAC oversaw the expenditure of more than $4.8 million from the city. 

Now, however, the city and United Way are mapping out a way for the latter to step away from that process.

“While we are proud of the work we have done for the past decade to provide a neutral, non-political grant-making process for the City, it has become clear that some members of City Council want to move the process in a different direction," a statement a United Way spokesperson sent CityBeat reads. "On October 30, we communicated with the City Administration our intent to not renew our contract to facilitate the fund once our contract expires on 7/31/2020. We also made clear we will work cooperatively with the City to transition the process with minimal disruption to the agencies and the people they provide services to.”

Council member Greg Landsman says discussions about a new process will continue in the coming weeks. He says he'd like to see the city move the funding process in-house under a performance-driven review process the administration uses for other outside contracts.

"As you know, they've been doing this at a loss for a long time financially," Landsman said of United Way in council's Nov. 12 Budget and Finance Committee. "I think they feel like they've met their obligation. My hope is that we'll be able to vote on that transition document and a plan that we all feel good about that allows us to continue to have the politics removed from all of this but also where we have all of our contracts under one roof going through what I believe to be a very rigorous process." 

Other council members have wanted the current arrangement to continue, however, saying that when the elected body divvied up the money itself, wrangling between members got too intense and decisions were made along political lines instead of based on outcomes and data.

It's unclear what will happen next if there are changes to the way human services funding is administered. Some council members supportive of United Way's work, including Chris Seelbach and David Mann, are adamant about keeping council out of the process. 

"I would never support it coming to the city and making this political," Seelbach said at the meeting. "I think that's the worst option ever. If there are other providers like United Way that we look at as, 'Could they do a better or different job?' — I'm open to looking at that." 

Others are more open to bringing the decisions in-house, much like other city funding processes for outside organizations.

"When people talk about the process being political, I think you can fill in the word 'democratic,' right?" council member P.G. Sittenfeld said. "People elected by the people make the decision. We do it on decisions a lot more controversial than human services funding. I'm fine with that." 

This isn't the first time the subject has come up recently. Last month, council member Tamaya Dennard introduced a motion asking city administration to explore bringing the process for selecting the groups receiving the money back into City Hall. That motion didn't pass, but council members Wendell Young, Landsman and Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman supported it.

"I respect and admire United Way as an organization," Dennard said. "But as we start to peel back the layers and looking at poverty and disparity in our city, we have to do things differently. A lot of people that benefit from the funding now are people who are African-American. But the organizations (getting funded) aren't led by African-American people."

Dennard and Young both also cited a dust-up last year involving the United Way in which the nonprofit's then-CEO Michael Johnson left after alleging "subtle threats" and a "hostile work environment." The departure of Johnson, who is black, set off a debate about race and leadership at the organization.

A group of prominent African-American leaders protested Johnson’s treatment, saying his departure is indicative of the resistance black leaders often face in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Black Agenda, a group led by former Cincinnati mayor Dwight Tillery, called for the United Way to be removed from the human services funding process following the shakeup. 

Roughly 64 percent of those served by programs funded through HSAC are African-American, according to reports from the committee, though few of the organizations funded by the process are led by African-Americans.

In a letter to Cincinnati City Council last December after Johnson's departure, however, members of HSAC noted they were predominantly African-American. 

"We all share — and many of us experience painfully in our professional lives — your concern about the pervasive racism afflicting work in institutions across this city," HSAC's letter read. "But we all agree that the Human Services Advisory Committee process helps counteract bias and favoritism, which are byproducts of racism, by ensuring that grants are awarded according to fair, transparent and evidence-based criteria. This process protects the city's human services grant-making process from power plays and lobbying which can create significant disadvantages for small qualified grassroots and minority nonprofits." 

Funding for human services done outside United Way's process has been a flashpoint between the mayor and city council in recent years.

One focal point of that battle in recent years has been the Center for Closing the Health Gap. Over the last few years, the nonprofit health group founded by former Cincinnati Mayor Dwight Tillery saw its funding cut under the city manager's and the mayor's budgets. Council restored its funding in the last two budget years.

The popular nonprofit, which saw a large number of supporters turn out to advocate for restoration to funding during the city's budget hearings this summer, works to bridge health disparities experienced by Cincinnati's black residents. The Health Gap says it has touched more than 360,000 people through its Do Right! Campaigns and has hosted annual health expos providing more than 100,000 attendees with more than 30,000 free health screenings.

Cranley has said that the Health Gap should go through the same process overseen by the United Way that other nonprofits apply to in order to get city funding, though, under his tenure, the center's funding via the city went up multiple years in a row outside that process. 

That is until the nonprofit found itself the focus of media scrutiny around its spending practices and was caught up in a political fight between Tillery and his onetime ally Cranley. After Cranley and Tillery had a falling out in late 2016 over an appointment to the Cincinnati Health Department, Tillery backed Cranley's mayoral opponent Yvette Simpson.

The fight between the two got more contentious when the budget drawn up by the city manager's office the next year looked to cut funding for the Health Gap.

That came after media reports that raised questions about the organization's spending on a program that provided fresh fruit to convenience stores and a few thousand dollars invoiced to the city by the Health Gap for events by a political organizing group called the Black Agenda. The Health Gap later returned that money after the city said it represented improper spending on political events. A city audit later found less-than-ideal billing practices at the Health Gap, but laid part of the blame for those lapses at the city's feet. Tillery left his leadership role at the Health Gap last year.

Mann has expressed concerns that more political wrangling could result from a departure from an outside arbiter for human services funding and remembers a time before the United Way process existed. 

"I think that would be a very unfortunate decision," Mann said in explaining his vote against Dennard's motion last month. "I don't think it's helpful to put politics right back in the middle of it… I lived that way during my earlier service on council."  

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