Checklist for grant priorities is proposed

August 20th, 2016

18-question form would make award process consistent

By SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Importance and impact. Those are the two most significant factors the Northeast Indiana Regional Development Authority is using to decide which requests deserve a share of the region’s $42 million Regional Cities Initiative grant.

Until now, the five board members have used individual gut instinct to measure those factors. But a proposed checklist could make the process easier and more consistent.

Michael Galbraith, director of the Road to One Million, this week unveiled an 18-question evaluation form that breaks down importance and impact into nine factors each. Galbraith, who works full time on Regional Development Authority business, created the proposal at board members’ request.

Jeff Turner, board chairman, suggested at Tuesday’s monthly meeting that members evaluate the projects already approved using this method to get a feel for how well it would work. They could vote as early as Sept. 20 to formally adopt the evaluation tool.

Board members are keenly aware that they will receive more grant requests than they can fulfill, so they are looking for a way to judge projects’ relative merits.

Turner shared some first impressions about the proposed evaluation metric on Thursday but said he hadn’t had time to really study it yet.

“We have to figure out how we can fairly determine which projects get funding and how much funding,” he said. “I think Mike (Galbraith) came up with a lot of good suggestions – after a lot of brainstorming.”

Using the checklist, board members would simply choose “yes” or “no” for whether a project meets individual standards. Then, each request would receive a rating, based on the combined scores. 

Standards under importance include:

• Is the project listed in the Road to One Million’s near-term projects?

• Is the project likely to appeal to people aged 15 to 34 making a decision to move to or remain in northeast Indiana?

• Does this add to our “awesome-place-to-live” factor?

Standards under impact include:

• Will this project be a regional bragging point?

• Will this project lead to continuing economic impact?

• Is this a project that fills an important unmet need in northeast Indiana?

The proposal explains: “These points are designed to be considered in a broad context and to serve as mechanism for evaluation.”

Making the process a little more logical and a little less emotional might be the only way board members can rank multiple worthwhile – yet fundamentally different – projects including downtown housing, a leadership center, an entrepreneurial center, a canoe launch and an aquatics facility.

With just $40.74 million to distribute after administrative costs, the board knows some gut-wrenching decisions are coming soon.

So far, all projects submitted have been approved, including two that weren’t in the original Road to One Million document submitted to the Indiana Economic Development Corp. when the region was competing for the state grant.

Trine University’s request for $2.8 million toward its new $18.9 million ice hockey arena and events center was granted before any formal evaluation process was in place.

Earl Brooks II, Trine’s president, said Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership staff, who assist applicants in preparing their submissions, informally shared the same basic guidelines. He also spoke with Regional Development Authority board members before the presentation in May.

“I felt there was good clarity of process before the rubric was developed,” he said. “The board, for us, provided great leadership.”

Brooks listed factors he understood to be important: retaining millennials, spurring economic development and creating an impact on the community.

“Naturally, it’s good to have a checklist or a process for doing this,” he said, adding that Trine officials believe the process was fair.

David Bennett, executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, has more than 20 years’ experience heading the local nonprofit that distributes about $2.5 million in competitive grants each year. The Community Foundation has an endowment of almost $140 million. Additional money is given in scholarships, bringing the total annual disbursement to about $6 million.

“There’s probably no magic bullet to this,” he said of making grant decisions. “I think you could go a lot of ways and still have a good way to do it.”

The Community Foundation relies on volunteers to review applications typically submitted by local nonprofits providing some type of social service. The volunteers review the organizations’ goals and use objective criteria to measure whether they’ve been successful in meeting those goals.

“The easy part is say ‘yes,’ ” Bennett said. “The hard part is saying ‘no.’ ”

Turner, the Regional Development Authority’s chairman, expects to share the final checklist with future applicants – and share the results of each board member’s scoring on individual projects to help the public understand how decisions were made.

But he’s in favor of some significant tweaks to the evaluation tool before it becomes part of the process.

Turner doesn’t believe each of the 18 factors – assuming the final list is 18 – should count exactly the same as the others. That’s how the proposal is structured, giving each factor the same value.

For example, he pointed to No. 4 on the proposed impact list: “Does this project significantly leverage other monies?”

“I don’t think that is going to weigh as much in my mind as (No. 3) ‘Spurs population growth in northeast Indiana,’” he said. “Do we have a multiply effect for some of these factors?”

Turner speculated that some of the more significant factors could be weighted by two, five or even seven points for each “yes” that board members give an individual project. But that’s just his opinion, he said. The final version will be created by board consensus.

“Not (every grant applicant) is going to be happy at the end of the day,” he said. “But we’re going to do our darndest, that’s for sure.”

Despite supporting the use of a checklist, Turner isn’t necessarily concerned about moving board decisions from partially emotion-based to strictly logic-based.

“There’s bound to be some of each,” he said. “Just like a good cook in the kitchen, you follow a recipe and then you take a taste of it and decide if it needs a little more salt or a little more sugar.”

“I think there is that gut feeling,” Turner said about evaluating project submissions. “Does this feel right?”