"What If..." Mini Grants:

A Record Year

In 2023, more “What If…” applications were submitted, more projects were funded, more grant dollars were awarded, and more orientation sessions were attended than ever before.

Posted on Nov. 16th, 2023

              Every day on his way to school, 13-year-old Dominic Pizarro would pass by Billings Park and see people gathered there. He began to notice that some of these individuals were homeless, and that sometimes local nonprofits would show up to distribute clothes and other supplies. One day his mom suggested they attend an orientation for the Gifford Foundation’s “What If…” Mini Grant program. Dominic was unfamiliar with what a grant actually was, but decided to tag along anyway.

“At first it didn’t catch my interest, but once I began to understand it – I got really interested in the idea.” After learning how Syracuse residents 12 and older can receive up to $5,000 in funding towards projects that improve the wellbeing of their communities, an idea began to form in his mind. He enlisted the help of his mom and younger brother, and worked with Gifford staff to plan out a project of his own including building a budget, recruiting volunteers, and partnering with a fiscal sponsor to oversee proper use of grant dollars. Applicants receive guidance throughout the process around how to write a successful proposal, as well as informational resources to help them navigate the project management itself.

“It was actually pretty easy,” said Dominic, referring to the accessible language in the application.

Dominic Pizarro, third from the left, worked with his mother and brother to distribute food and other supplies to people facing homelessness.

The process is designed so that individuals who may never have applied for grant funding before can be guided through each level of project planning and proposal development. Ultimately, Dominic’s grant application was approved by a Resident Review Committee made up of previous “What If…” Mini Grant recipients. He, his mother, and his brother, along with a team of volunteers, set up tables at Billings Park equipped with supplies they had purchased with their grant dollars. “We gave out tents, sleeping bags, food, drinks, and winter supplies too.”

In 2023, four major “What If…” milestones were achieved: more applications were submitted, more projects were funded, more grant dollars were awarded, and more orientation sessions were attended than in any other year since Gifford began the program in 2011. In total, $94,941 in funding was awarded across 30 projects including recreational events, educational seminars, marriage counseling, fashion expositions, and more.

For “What If…” recipient Freddie Butler, news about the opportunity came from an unexpected source: “My barber linked me to it,” he said, “Then I got on your website and read about it.” Butler is the President of Thornden Park Bulldogs Pop Warner Association, a youth football program based in Syracuse serving roughly 70 kids.

They had struggled to find funding sources for the many equipment needs they faced, but through a “What If…” grant were able to purchase safety gear including new helmets, a defibrillator, and a padded cheer mat. “It was a great experience that helped us out a lot, especially with the poverty rate in the area we serve,” said Butler.

The Thornden Park Bulldogs Pop Warner Association was able to purchase new safety equipment through a “What If…” Mini Grant.

Looking ahead, he is hopeful that the lessons he and his team learned through the process will give them an edge when competing for other competitive funding opportunities. “I think it should be easier to get other grants moving forward.”

“What If…” Mini Grant applications will reopen in January of 2024 along with a schedule of recurring orientation sessions. (Attending orientation is a requirement before applying.) Successful grants will make positive changes in their neighborhood while increasing community participation, awareness, and partnerships. Applicants must live in the City of Syracuse, and applications in support of commercial/for-profit businesses will not be accepted.

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