The Portland Clean Energy Fund will add an additional review phase for grant applications but will not require background checks despite the withdrawal of a $12 million grant earlier this month.
Last week, the first-of-its-kind environmental justice program added extra steps to its grant review process to include further screening of small or emerging organizations to reduce financial risk and more time to request additional information from applicants and get feedback.
Members of the group’s grant committee also took a firm stance on their commitment to not require background checks for grant applicants despite being recently scrutinized by the public and news media. The committee said this will continue to give people who might have a criminal history a second chance while supporting the group’s goals of helping communities of color advance and adapt to climate change.
Their decision comes after Portland City Council voted earlier this month to rescind a $12 million grant the clean energy fund had awarded to the local nonprofit Diversifying Energy. The Oregonian reported in December that the organization’s executive director Linda Woodley had previously served time in prison for defrauding energy companies and had amassed millions of dollars in liens for unpaid federal and state taxes.
Grant committee member Robin Wang said after Portland City Council moved to rescind the grant, his board had a “learning opportunity” to refine how the committee reviews and vets grant applicants. Wang said the program is still relatively new and the committee is learning things as they move forward.
“Even with this guidance, there may be scenarios that we didn’t contemplate or things that come up,” he said. “There’s going to be gray areas.”
Board members decided to reaffirm that no background checks will be required for grant applications — which aligns with Oregon’s “Ban the Box” law to reduce hiring discrimination against people with criminal convictions.
Wang said the grant committee wanted to be “intentional” with that decision because of how the previous grant was handled by news media and city council. If mistakes are made, he said, he prefers the public to scrutinize the program rather than the organizations chosen by them. He said he also wanted to let people know that they deserve an opportunity even if they have criminal backgrounds.
“There will be nonprofits applying for grants with leaders who have had interesting paths, and they have done fantastically well,” Wang said. “I don’t want to see their names dragged through the mud because of a criminal history when we, the committee and the city of Portland, say, ‘It’s okay. We’re not going to do a background check, and that’s intentional.’”
Wang said he had previously worked with Woodley, that money loaned to her organization was paid back ahead of time, and her business did a great job. But he said news reporting and the public response to her past criminal conviction led to her grant being rescinded without an opportunity to fully review and reconsider the decision.
“I think we all know why the city council made the decision that they did, I don’t think they had any choice,” Wang said. “But I don’t think someone’s past in history should be the prime reason why they would get their grant rescinded, especially if they were able to prove that they ran and led organizations or projects in a diligent, well-run manner.”
In an interview with OPB, Woodley said it was partly because of a background check that her grant was rescinded. She called it a “knee-jerk” reaction from public pressure and said her organization was well qualified to do what the grant required and was preparing to move forward quickly.
She said she is disappointed because she has been involved with the Portland Clean Energy Fund since the organizing stages and because the intent for the fund is to provide opportunities for low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, and people of color that have been historically shut out of these types of funds. She said she’s worried the recent changes such as additional screening for smaller or younger firms requesting grant funds that exceed their previous three years of revenue will limit how many organizations will apply and therefore make it harder for the intended communities to get grants.
“It’s really unfortunate that the city has taken this approach,” Woodley said. “With their new revisions, it’s really going to cut out a lot of firms, and I think that we’re going to see it reverting back to the dollars going to larger, white nonprofits, and it’s really a tragedy.”
The changes will be reflected in the 2021 grant review process, where more than 140 nonprofit organizations submitted applications requesting more than $250 million in funding. They will also apply to the group’s Heat Response Program, which will pay for the distribution of portable, electric heat pump cooling systems for elders, vulnerable low-income households and communities of color.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of applications the Portland Clean Energy Fund has received in its 2021 grant review process, which is separate from the Heat Response Program.