Funding panels bring community into review process

When it comes to making decisions for our community, United Way Halifax understands how important it is for the community to be part of the process. That’s why, with each funding process, we recruit volunteers to help assess the applications and make recommendations for funding based on specific criteria. These volunteers are part of what we call funding panels. After the applications are divided among the panels, members spend the better part of four months reading and discussing each application, asking questions, reading annual reports and financial statements, and visiting organizations. They then make recommendations for funding which are reviewed and approved by United Way Halifax’s Community Impact Committee and Board of Directors.

Funding panels reviewed over 50 applications. If that sounds like a daunting task, it most certainly is. But it has its rewards. We talked with two volunteers who were part of our most recent funding panels to find out more about their experience. To protect the confidentiality of volunteers, we’ve kept them anonymous in our story.

Welcoming words

JI had never been part of a process like this before. She was unsure what to expect but was reassured when she met her fellow panel members. “Initially, I had no idea what I was doing,” she says. But she looked to the more experienced volunteers in her group for guidance. “I was surprised by how easy it was to participate. Everyone’s voice was welcomed.”

Likewise, CW agrees that the panel she was part of quickly gelled as a team. Staff facilitators helped to break the ice and set them up for success. “There was good discussion right away, and constructive disagreement,” which she says is important. Panel members need to be able to think critically about the work in front of them. But it also meant that the panel members felt they could be vulnerable and share their own personal perspectives, stories and experiences in a safe space. “Every one of our members was a subject matter expert for different reasons.”

Panel volunteers are recruited carefully, so there is a mix of skills and experiences on each panel. And not just experiences of being on a funding panel – some of the volunteers have lived experience of poverty and may have benefitted from a program that United Way funds. The diversity in the funding panel members helps reflect the diversity in our community, ensuring that marginalized voices are part of the process.

Applications and site visits

Both volunteers we spoke with felt like the written applications offered just a glimpse of the work organizations are really doing to address poverty, affordable housing and homelessness, and inclusive communities across neighbourhoods in HRM. CW says she could see big differences in the applications her panel reviewed. “The skillset for applying for funding is really varied,” she says. “Sometimes good work can get lost in an application.” Her experience on previous funding panels helped her read between the lines.

JI says she was surprised by the volume of work happening across the municipality. “I was really impressed with what organizations were able to achieve with limited resources,” she says. Applicants also got creative during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Some organizations completely changed their operating model. Overall, they’re really quite nimble.”

Both volunteers say the opportunity to participate in site visits really helped bring applications to life, putting a human face to the impact organizations have in the community. JI says the experience was eye-opening. At one of her site visits, the applicant talked about providing someone with a tent and a taxi chit so they would be able to have a shelter over their head. “That was really hard to hear,” she says. “It’s so far from my own experience.” But she also noted how important it was to know about those stories. “When you hear it like that, it makes it much more real. It helps us understand how donations will help in community.”

At her site visits, CW was reminded that poverty is so much more than income. “Poverty looks and feels and sounds differently for everybody.” Her panel had huge discussions around it. “Poverty is almost an umbrella term for everything from mental health to physical abilities, equity, careers, education, living wage… it’s not just the paycheque you take home that puts you in poverty.” While reviewing applications, they saw just how much the different organizations serving people in poverty impact one another. “When you look at applications in a full picture, you realize the interoperability of them all.”

With those experiences in mind, it was difficult to make recommendations for funding. JI says she felt compelled to do more, knowing not every organization could receive funding. “There was so much enthusiasm at each of those site visits, it was just really incredible and so humbling.”

“When you do the site visit, you realize how much work is happening in that organization,” says CW. “The executive director and the frontline staff are all wearing three or four different hats each, making a very big difference with a limited budget.”

Worthwhile experience

Both volunteers agreed the experience of being on a funding panel was worthwhile and would participate again. JI said it left her wanting to do more, knowing the depth of poverty and how it impacts people’s lives. CW felt it was important to acknowledge the significance of United Way addressing poverty in HRM. “It’s brave and courageous to pick poverty as an area of focus. It’s not going to appeal to every donor, but you’re doing the right work and not just the easy work.”

If you are interested in volunteering for future funding panels, please contact us and let us know!

Final decisions on United Way Halifax’s 2022-23 multi-year funding are expected by the end of February, after approval from our Board of Directors. Once the decisions are final, you’ll find the updated list on our Community Fund page