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September 27th, 2006 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Vision For Dollars

How much "visioning" does a quarter-million dollars buy?

     
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IMAGE: THOMAS COBB
For the all the bang Mayor Tom Potter has gotten for the city's buck with a survey aimed at developing the city's "vision," he might as well have handed out $20 bills to several thousand of the respondents.

Potter's visionPDX project doled out nearly a quarter-million dollars in grants to community organizations, many targeting hard-to-reach populations like the homeless, recovering drug addicts, seniors, ethnic minorities and high-school students, for a "visioning" survey of four open-ended essay questions.

The organizations used some of the money to foster civic activism, such as having students produce photo essays and holding leadership training. But a WW analysis shows getting people to answer Potter's questions—which fliers announcing the grants called the funding's "ultimate goal"—cost taxpayers an average of $25 per respondent.

Pollsters say that $25 figure isn't unreasonable. But critics say it's indefensible to flush away $1.1 million—the project's overall cost—on a feel-good exercise that asks questions such as, "What do you value most about Portland and why?," even if it's only a drop in the city's $470 million general-fund budget.

"It's silly and not a good use of the taxpayers' money," says business owner Dave Lister, who ran for City Council this year. "What we need is a leader who provides the vision, who says, 'Here's where we need to go. Are you with me?'"

VisionPDX project manager Liesl Wendt says

it misses the point to judge grants solely by numbers.

"We made a decision to not just look at the quantity of contacts that people would make—but really looked for the quantity and quality of engagement opportunities," Wendt says.

The hard-to-quantify benefits include giving the community organizations an increased sense of direction and making underrepresented populations feel like the city cares about their opinions and involvement. Wendt pointed to one grant-sponsored meeting that brought together often-insular immigrant populations from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa.

Still, some of the 29 community groups spent two, three, even six times as much as the $25-per-respondent average (see www.wweek.com/media/8028.xls for a chart).

Human Solutions, a nonprofit helping low-income families, got a $5,000 grant and promised to bring in 120 to 160 of these often-unheard voices. But, according to the final report Human Solutions submitted to the city by the Sept. 15 deadline, the group reached only 66 people.

Human Solutions' report showed it spent nearly a third of its grant on $25 gift cards from Target, Fred Meyer and Wal-Mart, in hopes of using them to entice respondents. Another third paid a facilitator and a residential services coordinator $20 an hour for 80 hours of work.

In the end, each survey Human Solutions collected cost taxpayers $75.

And they weren't the costliest. The Recovery Association Project, a nonprofit that serves recovering addicts, got an $8,000 grant that returned 75 responses—at $107 each. The Oregon Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects got a $3,723 grant that returned 22 responses—at $169 each.

Groups spent money on T-shirts for volunteers, digital voice recorders and a $500 plane ticket to bring in a facilitator. The Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization paid $50 an hour for 7-plus hours of CD copying for video interviews they collected. The African American Health Coalition reported spending $2,330 of a $13,600 grant on unspecified "indirect expenses." AAHC project coordinator Rachael Maddock-Hughes didn't return a call, and city officials couldn't say what the money went toward.

While $25 might sound steep for a single respondent, Portland pollster Mike Riley says the focus groups he conducts often pay people $50 for their time, and even more if they're in a hard-to-reach group or busy professionals (Riley hasn't been involved in the visioning project, but has been asked to submit a proposal for a more quantitative survey based on questionnaires' results).

"It would cost us almost that much to do a telephone survey," Riley says. "When the goal is to reach out to a variety of publics, I could see where that would cost a little more."

More extreme examples may be out there—only two-thirds of the grantees had returned final reports by last week, a week after they were due.


Check the figures here: www.wweek.com/media/8028.xls
 
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