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Friday, June 24, 2011

Alms Day: Hundreds Beg for Nonprofit Funding at City Hall

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 5:59 PM

click to enlarge A festive Alms Day at City Hall - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • A festive Alms Day at City Hall

In this year's iteration of an annual ritual, hundreds of workers and beneficiaries of the public agencies and nonprofits that serve San Francisco's needy mobbed City Hall on Friday.

They all hoped for a chance to speak at a special Budget and Finance Committee hearing to voice outrage about Mayor Ed Lee's $3.4 million in funding cuts affecting 23 nonprofits that serve the poor. Call it Alms Day, in which nonprofits that serve the poor go begging to city fathers.

"Stand up, everyone who supports what I'm about to say," Community Housing Partnership executive director Gail Gilman said as a kickoff to an hours-long session in which potential commenters packed the Board of Supervisors chambers, snaked halfway around the inside of the block-sized building, and filled an additional hearing room to watch the proceedings on video. "Supportive housing is the most effective solution to homelessness. Restore cuts to Health and Human Services."


There are more efficient ways to allocate funding for the needy than annual mau-mau sessions. Here's one: San Francisco could decide upon measurable objectives. The city could then monitor whether agencies achieve those objectives in meaningful ways. And it could then spend tax money where it's most effective to provide the greatest possible benefit. Charities might actually come to appreciate simply having to perform, rather than annually beg for money.

click to enlarge Alms Day garb - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • Alms Day garb
SF Weekly's Joe Eskenazi and Benjamin Wachs explained in Dec. 2009 that, though two-fifths of San Francisco's discretionary budget is spent on nonprofits, mostly to help the needy, the city does almost nothing to systematically measure whether it's doing anybody much good.

Former Mayor Gavin Newsom set back the cause of effective services by generations by touting himself as Mr. Effectiveness, and then quietly politicizing and undermining any agency that attempted to produce real results.

This pattern was exemplified by Newsom's appointment in 2008 of Dariush Kayhan as homelessness czar -- after he'd run the failed nonprofit SF Connect, which had been linked conceptually with Newsom's political promotions. Thus homelessness became a rubric for political dealmaking, grandstanding, and money-wasting.

click to enlarge If there's a time for getting creative, it's Alms Day - MATT SMITH
  • Matt Smith
  • If there's a time for getting creative, it's Alms Day
All this was meticulously tracked, Eskenazi and Wachs explained, with piles of meaningless, unusable data.

[Newsom] has an Accountability Matrix and an Accountability Index, and even

an Accountability Report. But, sadly, a recent audit noted that these

lists were largely redundant and overlapping, and were tabulated

independently of one another, a clear waste of effort.

So instead of real cost benefit analysis, we have Alms Day -- which, truth be told, is a genial, festive occasion.

Nonprofit workers and clients mingled for hours Friday, waiting for a turn to speak at the Board of Supervisors podium.

They caught up on old times while reinforcing their shared belief in the cause of helping the poor, the elderly, and the sick.

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Matt Smith

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