November 30, 2017; Times Record (Fort Smith, AR)
When does funding a private nonprofit represent good public policy, and when does it open Pandora’s box? After thinking the matter settled for good a few years ago when it elected not to fund nonprofits at all, the city of Fort Smith, Arkansas, is again wrestling with this question in a conversation like one going on in small localities across the country.
The board of directors of Fort Smith made this decision as a preventive measure against individual board members showing favoritism in the funding of local groups. What complicates this, of course, are the many ways the city relies on nonprofits to provide necessary services and active support. In this case, what’s at issue is $66,000 in funding for Hope Campus, which provides services to homeless people.
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Board member Keith Lau was one of those who voted to stop funding nonprofits in order to keep board members from funding their personal favorite charities, but he supports an exception here because Hope Campus provides such important services to Fort Smith residents. Another board member counters that the same reasoning could be applied to the services supplied to localities by most nonprofits.
The city has been instrumental in funding the Riverside Hope Campus in a number of ways. In an interview with the Times Record, Housing Authority Executive Director Mitch Minnick said the housing authority had provided $400,000 in construction loans and $33,000 in funding a year since 2013, but funding for this year is in doubt. The campus has also received $600,000 in federal community development block grant money through the city—which, we can see, is not a disinterested party as a municipality.
Minnick says, “I feel that that funding is instrumental in stabilizing the operations. To lose that funding two months after opening the doors would, number one, be very hurtful to the operations, and number two, I think would send a very negative message to the community.” It probably makes little sense for most localities to opt out of funding nonprofits altogether. There are too many situations in which the public good is often served by a combination of municipal and nonprofit efforts. But the fear of entanglements in this case highlights again the importance of keeping partisan political interests out of the lives of nonprofits. The implications of those kinds of entanglements, which would almost certainly increase if the Johnson Amendment were to be repealed, make such local funding relationships that much more charged.—Nancy Young and Ruth McCambridge