TAMPA — Hillsborough County hands out millions of dollars each year to charities and other nonprofits that do everything from housing the homeless to helping battered women and children.
In coming years, those groups will face increasing demands that they prove they are spending taxpayers' dollars wisely — and that they are achieving results.
County Administrator Mike Merrill and his staff are putting nonprofits on notice they will have to do more to show they are a good investment of tax money.
"The objective is to give the ones we're funding now two years to learn how to operate more business-like and be able to measure what they do in outcomes," Merrill said.
After that, the county will determine if they get money and how much — in large part based on how well they can show they are achieving their mission. That could mean showing that the skills they teach help homeless people land jobs or that the counseling they provided enabled an abused woman to break free of an unhealthy relationship.
The county already takes some steps to ensure money it gives to charities is being used for the reason it was awarded.
But it tends to focus on head counts — how many people sheltered, how many children enrolled.
"The vernacular is output. That's how many people you served," said Dan Jurman, executive director and chief executive officer of the University Area Community Development Corp., who served on a citizen committee that offered recommendations on how to implement the shifting approach. "Outcome is how you change their lives."
Hillsborough County is seeking outcomes.
The change is being driven in part by the financial meltdown of the past several years, which forced the county to dramatically cut the amount it gives to charitable groups. The county already started targeting its spending on programs that its own employees would have to provide if not for a particular nonprofit.
It still gives money to groups focused on quality-of-life issues, like the arts. But it has focused more greatly on outfits that help people secure basic needs or promote economic development.
The recession helped underscore that the county can no longer simply award money to groups that show up at a budget hearing and tell a story of needs they are seeking to fill. The county will identify the needs it hopes to address and nonprofits will apply for the work, winning grants based on a track record addressing the problem.
That shift in attitude is becoming the norm with other governments and even private donors weighing their charitable spending, said Mindy Murphy, president and CEO of the Spring of Tampa Bay.
In years past, she might have had to document the number of woman and children escaping abusive spouses and parents that her organization has taken into its shelters (640 of each last year). But increasingly donors want to know more.
"Now we are recognizing that what we have to say is we served this number of people and this is how we helped them," Murphy said. "This is how we helped them change the story."
Still, her organization illustrates the challenge when trying to measure how groups help people, particularly people who have been broken in a fashion. Is a battered woman's shelter successful if it helps a client immediately end an abusive relationship? What if that woman returns to her abuser six months later? Is that a failure? What if, three months later, she completes work on classes that help her secure a job that enables her then to walk away from the relationship and support herself financially? How is that measured?
Lisa Brock, president of the Spring's board of directors whose communications company works for other nonprofits, said she applauds the county's efforts to ensure it spends tax dollars responsibly.
"But from a public point of view, people need to realize these social problems are complex," Brock said. "These people's lives are not just broken, they're smashed in some cases."
She said she hopes that, as the county develops its measuring system, it's not cookie-cutter.
She said different measurements should be created for different pursuits and they should be developed with the aid of social workers, not just people who balance the books.
Tom Fesler, who does just that as the county's budgeting chief, said the county has not really started figuring out how it plans to measure success. He said those standards will be developed with the help of people seeking to provide services to county residents.
"Over the course of the next two years, we will definitely have solid conversations with all of our nonprofits," Fesler said. "The last thing we want is to get close to the end of that second year and have the nonprofits say we've had inadequate conversation."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.