LCC are local partners of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and as such their primary responsibility is grants evaluation. Grant making offers an exciting opportunity for LCC members to directly contribute to the quality of life for all residents in their community. At the foundation of the grant evaluation process is a set of state guidelines that clarify eligibility, ensure equity, and encourage access. These are detailed in the LCC Program Guidelines. LCCs can also create additional review criteria, council priorities or other procedures that address their community's specific interests, needs, and resources.
Grant evaluation begins well before the first application is submitted. The quality and variety of the grants that councils receive depends on good dissemination of program information and how well the grant requests are prepared. The process also depends on the skills of the evaluator and how well councils represent the varied interests of their community. Here is a summary of the steps of the grant evaluation process:
Step 1: Establish and Review Criteria
Know and use the four state criteria outlined in the LCC Program Guidelines. Review or establish any council priorities to address specific cultural interests or needs identified through community input meetings or the knowledge base of LCC members. State and local criteria are the primary tools to evaluate the relative strengths of different proposals and to ensure an impartial decision-making process. Remember that any council priorities should be posted and accessible to all potential applicants by September 1. See a sample of local funding priorities.
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Step 2: Council Preparation
Preparing for a voting meeting should involve all council members. Chairs should divide up tasks as necessary. Follow these steps to prepare for a voting meeting.
- Ensure basic requirements have been met
- There is an elected chair, secretary, and treasurer in place.
- The council consists of at least five active members, each with less than six years of service.
- Schedule meeting(s) in physically accessible space.
- Post date of meeting(s) at Town or City Hall at least 48 hours prior.
- Determine funds available for granting
- Process and distribute materials
- Scan applications for missing information and completeness and follow up with the applicant if necessary.
- Distribute the PDF panel book to member to review prior to the meeting.
- Distribute information about conflict of interest with applications. Appendix B.
- Print out a copy of the sample disapproval letter and include local denial reasons so that council members have state and local reasons for denial on hand.
- Review criteria and eligibility
- Retake the online Basics Training as a refresher.
- Review criteria used to evaluate grants, including the state's four requirements.
- Have state guidelines and council priorities on hand during the voting meeting.
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Step 3: Review Applications and Make Awards
Review applications before the council's voting meeting. Look back over last year's grants and note some of the more exemplary projects. This is also a good time to consider nominating a previously funded project for a Gold Star Award. With these high-quality grants in mind, turn to reviewing new applicants using all state guidelines and council priorities. All members should read all of the applications. However, each council member can be responsible for presenting a select group of proposals to the rest of the group at the meeting. In your role as a grant evaluator consider these essential qualities:
- Maintain objectivity; vote with your head, not your heart.
- Listen carefully to other opinions and viewpoints in the grant process, and during the year.
- Be open-minded because you represent your whole community.
Council members having potential conflicts of interest with certain applications should abstain from voting and/or complete the necessary forms before the voting meeting or else the voting meeting could be considered invalid.
During the voting meeting, give sufficient time to each application so that all council members can express opinions about them. Evaluation comments, both positive and negative, should be clear and related to the criteria. Be specific about why you choose certain proposals over others. Use the MCC resources regarding proposal evaluation, budget review and common funding dilemmas to help focus the council's evaluation discussion. Before the review meeting is over, set a reconsideration meeting date in case one is needed.
Handling Incomplete Applications
Because the demand for funding far exceeds what is available from many councils, there can be the temptation to use "technical disapprovals" to disapprove incomplete applicationions (missing information, no signature, missing copies), or to deny an application as a way to reduce the number of applications to be reviewed. While this may make the process easier for the grant reviewer, it can be a disservice to well-meaning applicants and could eliminate promising projects.
Ideally, councils will work with applicants to get missing information or materials in before their voting meeting. Many councils may want to use the first few days after reviewing their PDF panel book to review applications to ensure they are complete, and give applicants a chance to resolve minor omissions.
With strong demand for council funds, it is critical to articulate the relative strengths of each proposal. How does the application compare with others? Which proposals provide the best public benefit? A stronger proposal might provide more public benefit because it reaches an underserved community segment or offers more compelling artistic/cultural experiences. The Sample Score Sheet includes questions to help members consider and compare proposals. Brainstorm and add to this list. Consider sharing the council's score sheet with applicants on your council's profile so they know exactly what criteria the council uses to evaluate applications.
Reviewing the Budget
Incomplete or poorly prepared budgets can reflect poor project planning. Many applicants are not experienced with writing grants, and budget preparation is often a challenging part of the application. An adequately prepared budget should include budget figures that result from researching costs (printing costs, artist teaching or performing fees, facility rental costs, administrative expenses, etc.). They should also reflect the dollar value of "in-kind" products or services, if any. "In-kind" refers to the approximate dollar value of anything that is donated to a project, such as art materials, a free space which normally charges rent or an individual's time, to name a few. Such donations help demonstrate community support for a project. Finally, and most importantly, a budget should be balanced so that projected income will cover projected expenses.
Partial vs. Full Funding
Many councils receive an abundance of good proposals and try to fund as many as possible by awarding a portion of the original request. Although this is a reasonable way to spread limited funds, there is a danger in making the award so small that the project cannot go forward at all. This results in the council repeating their efforts to reallocate the unspent funds in the next cycle and also discourages those applicants from applying again. For this reason, the LCC application form specifically asks applicants to address how they will adjust the project if the council cannot fund the entire amount requested. Some councils call the applicant to discuss the feasibility of supporting the proposal with a partial award and also request a modified budget.
Other Funding Dilemmas
Many councils face some combination of the following dilemmas. Councils should discuss these scenarios before the grant review to develop their own local policies or requirements. It is very difficult to do this in the middle of the review process when time is short and members are overwhelmed with applications. Making changes about policies or criteria during the review process is also unfair to applicants and could be grounds for reconsideration.
Too many applications, too few dollars: Even though funds are very limited, councils always needs to encourage applications especially from new applicants to ensure that funding is accessible to everyone. Councils should not discourage applications, but should evaluate which best serve their community, or a segment of it. When making decisions, council members should be aware of why some proposals are chosen over others and subsequently properly convey any strengths or weaknesses to the denied applicants. "Limited funds" is not by itself an appropriate reason for denial.
Repeat applicants: Councils have the autonomy to limit how often applicants can apply or how many proposals can come from one organization, individual, or school. Some councils ask applicants with multiple projects to identify which project is the priority for them. Some projects are funded repeatedly because a council feels they are valuable. However, councils need to ensure opportunities for newcomers to compete for funding and avoid the perception that the council may be showing favoritism.
Out-of-town applicants: Some councils appreciate being able to support long-distance artists who will present a program in their community. Other councils automatically disapprove such projects because they have a funding policy to only support local artists. The applicant is responsible for finding out if an LCC has locally developed policies or procedures. Some councils send contact information to disapproved artists to encourage planning with a local sponsor that would apply on their behalf in the future. All applicants must reside in or be located in Massachusetts.
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Step 4: Communicate with Applicants
Communicate the council's decisions in writing or email, beginning with denied applicants. Unsuccessful applicants may request reconsideration if they can demonstrate that the council did not follow published state guidelines and council priorities. If a decision is changed and the reconsidered grant is given an award, most likely the amounts awarded to other approved grants will need to be adjusted. Therefore it is important to delay notification to approved applicants until the annual report to MCC is completed.
After the required 15-day reconsideration period has passed, councils should complete the Annual Report. The Annual Report assures that all final accounting of grant amounts and available funds is correct and serves as the local councils official final report to the MCC before the MCC will authorize the release of funds. After completing the Annual Report, councils should notify successful applicants that their application was approved, and explain the reimbursement process and MCC credit policy.
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Step 5: Evaluate the Grant Making Process
An effective council reflects on its process, including how well it educates applicants and addresses community needs and interests. Reflection is most productive when done soon after the review meeting while the experience is still fresh for all participants. New policies and council priorities can be developed at this time and shared with future applicants next year.
Many councils make a point to attend projects when possible. This is a great chance to evaluate a project from the participant's perspective. Councils can split up the projects between members so that at least one member is able to attend each event. Members can take notes or fill out an evaluation form afterwards. It is good to keep these notes with the grant materials so that the council can refer to it if the applicant applies again.
Councils are committed to supporting high quality projects within the community. Examining the success and impact of approved grants allows councils to better evaluate similar projects or returning grantees in the future. Including an evaluation component as part of the reimbursement process can also help councils to determine that a project has been completed as promised. Some councils provide a self-evaluation form for grantees to submit along with their reimbursement. See a sample evaluation.
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