In a cavernous auditorium underneath the Capitol, a long line of supplicants waited anxiously for a turn at the podium.
Tuesday marked an annual ritual in Hawaii, the day when nonprofit organizations that have submitted the right paperwork are invited to appear before a panel of stern lawmakers to make their pitch for money.
Some 295 organizations have asked for grant-in-aid funding this year; only a fraction of them will get it later in the legislative session.
Applicants are given only three minutes to introduce themselves, explain what their group does and ask for state money so they can do it better. Only one person per nonprofit group is allowed to speak.
“It’s challenging to stand out in that lineup,” said Lisa Maruyama, president and chief executive officer of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations. “It’s not easy to articulate the value of your organization in three minutes.”
The Tuesday session was a first for Eileen Lynn, a member of the Ewa Beach Lions Club, which hopes for a $30,000 grant. She stayed up late Monday writing and rewriting her testimony, huddling with her husband, another Lions Club member, about the exact wording she should use.
“I was very nervous,” she said a few minutes after stepping away from the lectern. “I was cold and shaking, so I wore my jacket.”
Lynn wasn’t worried about whether the cause was worthy. She feels confident about the group’s mission, particularly its work helping kids with special needs and providing vision care to schoolchildren who are not otherwise getting their eyes checked before heading to classrooms.
Last year the club tested 1,159 children and referred 144 of them to school officials for help with bad eyesight. Kids who can’t see “will fall behind,” Lynn said. If the club gets the money it’s seeking, it could buy a second optical refractor and insurance for it, which would allow it to test even more kids for vision problems.
But she was also anxious for good reason. It’s easy to make a mistake during the application process, and a single error can mean losing a shot at state money for a whole year. Last year the club sought a similar grant and failed after submitting its application just a few minutes late, according to Lynn and fellow member Eleanor Rolark.
Another nervous applicant sitting nearby was Nancy Bottelo, chief executive officer of Special Olympics Hawaii. She is seeking $1 million to help complete a building in Kapolei that will allow the group to provide health services for people with disabilities.
“There are so many worthy charities here asking for money, and there are more nonprofits than there is money to be given, so I hope they see the merits of our projects and give us the money for it,” Bottelo said.
Bottelo and Lynn know they face stiff competition. Among the many other applicants this year are:
• The Blood Bank of Hawaii, displaced by rail construction, which is asking for $2 million to build a new facility in Kapolei;
• The Honolulu Men’s Shed, which wants $25,700 to buy safety and woodworking equipment for a club that provides a safe haven for senior men to work shoulder to shoulder on crafts and construction projects;
• Amateur Boxing of Hawaii, which wants $50,000 to teach more kids to box and prepare them for competitions;
• The Napili Bay and Beach Foundation, which wants $125,000 to replace a decaying beach access structure on Maui.
In recent years, about a third to a half of the groups that have applied have gotten money. In January 2018, for example, 270 nonprofits applied for grants, and in April, the Legislature announced that about 120 would receive a total of just over $30 million. In 2016, 276 nonprofits applied, and the Legislature approved 104 of them, handing out about $36.7 million. It was even tougher in 2015, when 280 applied but only 91 got money.
While representatives of many nonprofits are eager to take a shot, some privately call the process daunting and mysterious. Groups make their pitches openly but the decision-making happens behind closed doors and applicants often aren’t told why they didn’t make the grade.
“Nobody can predict the pattern,” Maruyama said. “It’s not clear how decision-making is occurring.”
The available money varies each year, said Dane Wicker, clerk to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, whose members decide who gets money in cooperation with the House Finance Committee.
“If an organization is filling a void for the state that’s always a plus, something that we don’t need to foot on the state side,” Wicker said, particularly when the promised results are seen as high-priority needs.
He said senators tend to watch out for their own districts, favoring organizations and programs that “are a priority to their constituents.”
On the Senate side, the grants-in-aid process is overseen by Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz and Sen. Gilbert Keith-Agaran, the committee’s vice chair. On the House side, the process is led by Rep. Scott Nishimoto.
One change this year is that lawmakers are traveling to Maui and the Big Island to repeat the process, giving neighbor island nonprofits an easier opportunity to make their case without flying to Honolulu, Wicker said. He said that some groups had told lawmakers that traveling to Oahu was not financially feasible.
With so much competition, applicants know that they must have a friend in the Legislature, or two or three, to make sure that their proposal gets the attention of lawmakers who jam this job in among all the others they are doing during the 60-day legislative session.
Lynn of the Ewa Beach Lions Club is hoping for help from Sen. Kurt Fevella, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who represents Ewa Beach. The sole Republican senator is a member of the club. When Lynn and Rolark came to the Capitol, he lent them his parking space — spaces are notoriously scarce during a legislative session.
In some cases, the nonprofits asking for money are doing work the state used to do but stopped because of budget cuts.
The Lions Club is a good example. The state used to consider vision-screening of schoolchildren an essential service, but it stopped administering the screenings in 1995 amid budget cuts made when the national economy slumped and Hawaii tourism took a nosedive.
The former Department of Health Hearing and Vision Program had conducted vision screening from 1978 to 1995, but the program was terminated by legislators who reasoned that health care providers could do it instead.
Yoga in prisons was a state program that got cut in 2009. The nonprofit Yoga School of Kailua has maintained the service for inmates, and is seeking a $72,155 grant to expand yoga instruction in jails with the encouragement of Sen. Laura Thielen.
“So little is being done for inmates in correctional institutions,” said applicant Thomas DiGrazia. “This is their lifeline.”
But even if they win another grant, the future is uncertain, DiGrazia said.
That underscores a central problem for nonprofits. While they are grateful to get help through grants-in-aid, which Maruyama called a “wonderful source” of income, a more consistent source of funding would allow nonprofits to plan better.
Regular appropriations in the state budget could be much more helpful, but for now, “I don’t want to knock a resource,” she said.
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