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, DC.

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

In 2020 the Chesapeake Executive Council signed a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Statement to commit the Chesapeake Bay Program to “equitable, just, and inclusive engagement of all communities living throughout the watershed.” Reflecting on this statement, the CAC sought to understand how equitable funding, in the form of grant making and grant execution, is being distributed to community organizations.

The guiding question was: are the priorities set by prominent resource providers aligned with the needs and priorities of small, frontline community organizations? A three part panel of local community organizations, contractor findings from a Chesapeake Bay Program focus group, and a prominent Chesapeake Bay watershed funder, was organized. The goal was to understand if grant eligibility requirements and priorities lead to funding disparities, and what efforts are needed to advance the capacity of organizations that do not meet these requirements.

Three community groups contributed to the panel: Latino Outdoors, ReBUILD Metro, and Ward 8 Woods Conservancy.

Albert Arévelo, a program coordinator volunteer for Latino Outdoors, shared his organization’s mission – to inspire, connect, and engage Latino communities in the outdoors and embrace cultura y familia as part of the outdoor narrative, ensuring their history, heritage, and leadership are valued and represented.

Jenny Guillaume and Daniel Kravetz represented ReBUILD Metro, a Baltimore based nonprofit that works with community members to revitalize homes and green neighborhoods without displacing people.

Nathan Harrington spoke on behalf of Ward 8 Woods Conservancy, a grassroots nonprofit organization that works to rejuvenate and enhance the beauty, ecological health, and public enjoyment of the more than 500 acres of forest in the Ward 8 section of Washington, DC, for the benefit of all.

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. The CAC Stewardship and Engagement Subcommittee created a detailed report of findings you can view here.

Some of the most common barriers identified by the panelists were:

  • 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. Requiring payments as reimbursement rather than advance payments may be beyond the financial capacity of small organizations.
  • Federal Requirements. Requiring institutional infrastructure such as audit reports of financial statements, approved accounting systems, insurance, etc., is prohibitive in many ways.
  • Matching Fund Requirements. This excludes organizations with limited liquid capital.
  • Award Criteria. Metrics tend to be technical, quantitative, and built around pollution reduction calculations. Projects may be disqualified if they do not show quantitative environmental impacts, but may have community, education, and engagement benefits.

The second part of the panel was a presentation by Gabrielle Roffe, Manager of Equity and Community Engagement at the Chesapeake Conservancy. She shared her experience as a contractor to a Chesapeake Bay Program project, Cultivating and Strengthening Partnerships with Under-represented Stakeholders. This project looked internally to identify systemic issues within the Chesapeake Bay Program that limit full engagement of communities. Strategies included conversations with Bay Program staff and community members, assessment mapping through the lens of social and financial capital, and reflecting where the Bay Program fell on the “spectrum of community engagement.” A recommendation of this project is that funding be allocated at the local level and that projects must not be limited to water quality pollution reduction goals.

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 administers federally funded grant programs that are closely tied to water quality outcomes and other goals in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement as dictated by the U.S. Congress. The panelists and CAC members offered some ideas that can help to expand grant access such as training and proposal writing assistance for organizations applying for Chesapeake Bay Watershed grants. Additionally, 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 panel is that many of the existing Chesapeake Bay grants may not be effective in meeting the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goals for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice. 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.”