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Funding possibility: Invest STL to award first grant to one group out of four finalists

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Early this year, Karl Guenther told the St. Louis Beacon his new nonprofit, Invest STL, was asking people “to fund possibility and stay engaged through that.”

How? The organization planned to raise $10,000, and then award its first grant, of $2,500, from that money. The remainder would stay with Invest STL to try to grow it into a long-lasting organization, which would give out future grants. So that’s the funding possibility part.

People stay engaged by having a say in where their money goes. With $100, they’d get to vote on who gets the first grant.

The results of all this will be announced on Thursday, Sept. 26 at Invest STL’s 1st anniversary party and concert.

Invest STL reached its $10,000 mark with a total of 149 people giving money. In all, 11 organizations submitted grant proposals, which were whittled down to four by a grant committee. Those four presented their proposals one evening in August at an event in Maplewood, and the 21 people who gave $100 or more will make the final decision.

Because the grant award isn’t huge, nearly all the finalists have plans to proceed with their projects regardless of whether they are selected for it. The money means help with communications or overhead, or just a final push.

Here, in no particular order, are those final four.


Early this year, Michelle Witthaus ran for alderwoman of St. Louis’ 6th ward. The former school teacher and Occupy St. Louis community activist didn’t win. But the platform she ran on survives her electoral defeat. Witthaus campaigned on the idea of participatory budgeting. That’s a process in which a politician sets aside a portion of the city’s budget and lets residents propose ideas, which are developed into proposals, which then get voted on by residents.

After Christine Ingrassia won the 6th ward seat, she reached out to Witthaus saying this is a great idea, let's work together.

The 6th Ward has set aside $100,000 for participatory budgeting, $50,000 from this year’s budget, $50,000 from next year’s. (Each alderman sets aside $200,000 a year for such issues as landscaping, park improvements and street repairs, Ingrassia explains on her website.)

Beginning Monday, Oct. 7, PBSTL will have a series of morning and evening neighborhood assemblies to begin brainstorming with the community. Over time, they’ll work together to shape ideas into viable proposals, Witthaus says, and then make them into propositions that will get voted on next spring and started next summer.

For its Invest STL proposal, PBSTL partnered with DeSales Community Housing. The $2,500 would go toward printing fliers to help the group reach as many people as possible in time for the neighborhood assemblies.

“We really believe our residents are our biggest asset,” Witthaus says.

City Greens Market

Right now, City Greens Market operates out of a church basement. The social services organization serves people in the 63110 and part of 63104 ZIP codes. It's a joint project between Catholic Charities Midtown Center and Missouri farmers. City Greens offers quality and affordable food in an area without a grocery store in a one-mile radius. (see "A neighborhood produce market grows in St. Louis.")

The organization, which started five years ago, is tucked away in St. Cronan’s Church, says Michelle Erhard, the group’s coordinator, and people often have a hard time finding it.

“We have been working on getting the market out of the basement,” she says.

They are looking at two options for a new home, which could help bring more foot traffic and be easier for people to find. The group is raising funds to meet at $30,000 matching grant. Erhard says the move will mean an expanded selection of produce, as well as creating a place that feels more like a grocery store. If City Greens Market wins the Invest STL grant, it will use that money for more shelving and refrigeration.

“It will be the nudge to get us over the edge,” Erhard says.

ONE project

The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group wants funding for a program that's already underway. ONE, or Old North Equality, is a partnership withYWCA of Metro St. Louis. The purpose is to help create more sincere and authentic relationships across racial lines in the neighborhood, says Claire Wolff, community engagement specialist.

Adapting the YWCA’s racial justice program, ONE offers a series of films and book clubs to help people in the neighborhood engage with each other. A photography show is also planned to highlight the neighborhood’s diversity.

The Old North group started in 1981 and has overseen a number of projects. Money from the grant would help with all those efforts, helping to buy books for the book clubs, for example.

“We want this to happen regardless of whether we receive the Invest STL money,” Wolff says, “but the grant would help it be more robust.”

St. Louis ArtWorks

St. Louis ArtWorks, which started in 1995 with summer programming, has offered year-round classes and projects since 2005.

One of their programs, Bloomworks, creates art for gardens, public parks and urban spaces using sustainable practices, says Priscilla Block, executive director.

Using a team of students that works as apprentices with artisans, the students create a piece of commissioned art and earn a stipend in the process.

They also learn life skills, Block says, such as money management through opening a bank account to deposit paychecks, fiscal literacy, safe relationships, anger management, healthy eating skills and environmental stewardship.

ArtWorks’ grant proposal is for a beautification project in Old North, which might include planters or benches, or something for a community garden. The group’s work is ongoing, however this particular project for Old North depends on winning the Invest STL grant, Block says, and would be completed next spring.

‘This grant is definitely something that would be supporting a work of art for the specific client,” she says.

And the winner is...

We don’t actually know that yet, but in some intangible ways, maybe everyone who participated.

The process of pitching their ideas in front of a group was different, and more work, than other grants require. But for Wolff, meeting with people involved and getting feedback was a great part of the process.

“I think that was the most powerful part for me,” she says.

Erhard discovered that City Greens Market and the Old North neighborhood group had similar ideas, and possibilities for partnership and idea sharing have come out of that, she says.

“I hope it (the Invest STL grant program) continues to grow,” Block says.

For that to happen, she says the project that gets funded needs to be completed and visible.

Invest STL’s next move will be to raise $25,000, Guenther says. They are pushing  to work with local businesses and to get people to turn out at neighborhood events. The next grant, once the $25,000 goal is reached, will be for $6,250.

Whomever is announced the winner Thursday night, Guenther hopes the process helps highlight what it takes to create successful projects. The groups at the top are examples of best practices, he says, and they’ve laid the foundation with both work and possibility.

Kristen Hare

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