In the early 1980s, Seattle's neighborhood groups experienced mounting frustration over their inability to secure the City's funding to complete critical projects. As in many other cities, Seattle's citizens felt detached from their local government. Accessibility to public grants was limited to organizations that fit into a particular funding category or population, preventing many community-based activities from obtaining funds. In 1988, Seattle's City Council developed the Neighborhood Matching Fund, which focuses on supporting projects that are important to residents but might not be a top priority for the City. The Fund aims to foster more effective means for residents to carry out self-help, neighborhood improvement projects while increasing cooperation and participation among residents, businesses, public schools, and the City.
Neighborhood self-help projects throughout Seattle receive a total of 1.5 million city tax dollars each year from the Fund, in awards ranging from several hundred dollars to $100,000. Each grant must be matched by the community organization, using an array of resources like volunteer labor, pro bono professional assistance, donated materials, and cash. On average, 100 projects are completed per year. These endeavors include neighborhood needs/opportunity assessments, playground construction, community gardens, preservation of urban open spaces, market research for declining business districts, public art, community education programs, organizations for combating crime, and programs for at-risk youth. Proposals must meet the high standards of the city-wide review board, comprised of previous grantees, who ensure that the organization will fulfill the matching cash and labor requirements. As of 1991, over 150 neighborhood organizations had received project funds with 50 other groups involved as co-sponsors. Ninety-six of Seattle's 100 neighborhoods have participated with 60 percent of funds allocated to predominantly low-income communities.
The City not only provides financial assistance, but also offers technical support for grassroots initiatives. Organizational development of community activities is fostered through a number of programs including provision of user friendly tools, public notices and application assistance. Project-experienced neighborhood leaders provide peer training for new grassroots organizations with fifteen residents facilitating pre-application workshops in 1991.
The Fund's continuous program evaluation and improvement process in response to resident feedback is critical to strengthening the community's connection with the city government. For example, due to concerns over the length of the application process, the Small and Simple Projects Fund was established so that smaller projects are able to be funded quickly. The Fund designates $200,000 each year so that requests of $3,000 or less can be considered at any point in the year and processed in a timely fashion. Another improvement occurred with the development of a special designation topic area for each year to encourage more innovation and diversity.
The Fund quickly developed a citywide reputation as a resource to address a set of pervasive neighborhood problems, which could not be adequately resolved without the collaboration of the City and neighborhoods. In 1989, the total private resources leveraged were conservatively valued at 125 percent of the amount of public dollars spent, indicating real investment by private businesses and community volunteers. By increasing investments, the neighborhoods' sense of pride also improves and residents feel that they hold a bigger stake in government. Neighborhood groups are now willing to take on larger challenges that may have previously seemed daunting. Not only is the structure of the Fund itself innovative, but the program also promotes further creativity by encouraging new ideas, new organizations and new neighborhood leadership throughout Seattle.