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Applying for grants can burden small towns. A Vermont 'crowdgranting' program can help

A dog sits on a wooden bench with MAD RIVER VALLEY DOG PARK inscribed on the back.
Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development
The Mad River Valley Dog Park is one of 45 projects in the state to receive funding from Better Places, a unique "crowdgranting" program.

Like any municipal project, it started with meetings and surveys. Residents complained of dog waste and off-leash behavior on the Mad River Path. But there wasn’t a place for the dogs to socialize — the nearest dog park was miles away.

Eve Silverman, of Fayston, is chair of the Mad River Valley Dog Park Committee. While the town of Warren was willing to provide the land for the park, she said, the committee still needed to raise funds to pay for supplies.

Enter Better Places, a grant program run by the state Department of Housing and Community Development with a unique “crowdgranting” model. It combines the crowdfunding model used by websites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe with 2:1 matching grants, effectively turning a $5 community donation into $15.

“They gave us the tools, and then we provided the manpower and the motivation from the community,” Silverman said.

In just two months, the dog park committee reached its goal of $12,000 — earning it a $24,000 match. With a little frugality, a lot of volunteer labor, and some additional donations, the community built a shaded pavilion, two fenced off-leash areas (one for larger dogs and one for smaller ones), an agility zone and more.

Better Places has helped communities across the state accomplish their goals. So far, 45 programs have been funded, while six are in the fundraising stage. They range from outdoor art exhibitions and murals to concerts and parks.

‘The pandemic really elevated the need for public spaces’

Better Places began with meetings between various Vermont nonprofits, DHCD and other state agencies in 2017, seeking a new way to fund smaller public, community-driven projects in Vermont’s underserved rural communities, which often lack the resources to engage in grant writing like larger towns do, said Richard Amore, who runs the program.

"That coalition helped form Better Places and set up legislation and move that through pre-pandemic, but then the pandemic really elevated the need for public spaces for public health," Amore said, noting that a drop in post-pandemic traffic in downtowns was also a motivator.

Patronicity, which provides coaching and hosts the fundraising pages for Better Places projects, was already popular in its native Michigan, as well as Indiana and Massachusetts.

Better Places grants are designed to be non-competitive, so applicants without dedicated grant writers aren’t disadvantaged. Instead, towns and nonprofits go through a pre-flight consultation to refine their proposal and determine its eligibility, then receive coaching from Patronicity and DHCD to build and run a fundraising campaign. If an applicant meets its goal, it receives a 2:1 match from the state, ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new attention to the importance of public, outdoor places for people to interact. A pilot in early 2021, without the crowdfunding element, saw $130,000 in grants distributed for eight projects, out of 63 applicants. The demand was there.

In 2021, the Legislature appropriated $1.5 million from the general fund for the program, $1.28 million of that reserved for grants.

‘I hope the word spreads’

In 2022, an inspection of the Coventry Village School school playground revealed much of the equipment was not up to code and beginning to break down. The school's parent teacher organization decided to raise funds the following year for renovations.

Sarah Bathalon, secretary of Coventry SPICE (School Partnership Inspiring Community Engagement), said it was Rep. Michael Marcotte, whose district includes Coventry, who suggested applying with Better Places.

“I don’t know if we would have made our goal without the support and help of that grant,” Bathalon said. “And I hope the word spreads about this grant because it really helps revitalize rural communities who can’t really afford to do these kinds of projects on their own.”

With the help of her assigned coach, Bathalon set up a fundraising page on Patronicity. The fundraiser began Sept. 18 and met its goal of $20,000 just 48 days later — overshooting by almost $4,000. Combined with the $40,000 in matching funds, SPICE was able to pay for additional equipment and put some aside for future maintenance.

A children's playground is covered in snow. Monkey bars are visible in the front while swings hide in the back.
Sarah Bathalon
Coventry SPICE raised $20,000 from donors for a $40,000 match from Better Places to renovate the Coventry Village School Playground.

The matching grant provided by Better Places is all-or-nothing: if an applicant reaches its goal, it receives the full amount. If it falls short, it receives nothing. But that hasn’t been a problem: all 45 of the completed campaigns have reached their goals.

Back in the Mad River Valley, the dog park committee’s Silverman said the terms of the matching grant didn’t just help with raising money, they also helped engage the community and convince other organizations to grant their approval.

“I don’t think we could have raised the money all ourselves, it’s a big ask for individuals in the community to fund [the dog park],” Silverman said. “And it also helped us to get the approvals we needed from the Warren Select Board and other organizations. It certainly lent credibility to our project and helped people believe that actually it was going to happen.”

The coaching was also a boon: on Patronicity’s advice, the dog park committee offered rewards for higher contributions, reached out to other organizations for sponsored support, mailed postcards to every dog license holder in the Mad River Valley, and tabled at community events.

“The fundraising itself increased the motivation and the commitment and investment of the community in the park. Everyone was excited about it even before it was built,” Silverman said. “I think [Better Places] is a very clever structure and a way to support creating spaces that people really love and want to take care of and keep building.”

In creating the program, the Legislature set it to sunset after three years — on July 1. In either case. This year the Legislature voted to reauthorize the program as part of a wide-ranging housing reform bill, but not to appropriate new funding; currently, Better Places does not have any money for new grants.

If the bill passes into law, the program will still be on pause until it receives new funding — either from the Legislature or program partners, Amore said. If it doesn’t pass into law, the six projects currently fundraising — and one final one yet to start — will be completed by June 30, and still have a year after that to build.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Corey Dockser is Vermont Public’s first data journalist, a role combining programming and journalism to produce stories that would otherwise go unheard. His work ranges from complex interactive visualizations to simple web scraping and data cleaning. Corey graduated from Northeastern University in 2022 with a BS in data science and journalism. He previously worked at The Buffalo News in Buffalo, New York as a Dow Jones News Fund Data Journalism intern, and at The Boston Globe.
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