Charitable trust in grant denial flap

Catherine Foundation CEO Heather Sells, shown here at the foundation’s 2017 annual fundraising gala, believes that the board of the Charles County Charitable Trust declined the foundation’s grant application because it provides pro-life services. The trust says that the application was denied because the money would not have been used to provide services directly to residents.

The Charles County Charitable Trust was accused last week of political motivations for turning down a grant application from a local nonprofit organization, but the county’s grant-making arm claimed the decision was not based on the organization’s pro-life stance.

On Wednesday, Charles County Right to Life released a statement quoting the trust’s program director, Susan Petroff, as saying that she had told the CEO of the Catherine Foundation, which provides counseling and medical services to pregnant women, that the “board has a problem with using taxpayer money to fund pro-life services.”

“Here we have a HUGE problem, folks,” the organization’s announcement read. “The Charitable Trust exists to help qualified nonprofits [that] can demonstrate that they would have an impact on the quality of lives for underserved populations or residents at large like through the arts. They do not exist to determine if a nonprofit’s mission is too political for their board.”

CCRTL’s announcement, which was emailed to subscribers, posted on its website and shared on Facebook, also called on readers to donate to the foundation to make up for the funds that had been requested from the county. The group announced that $3,600 had been raised in the first 24 hours since the appeal went out.

The Catherine Foundation provides counseling and medical services related to pregnancy and sexual health, including pregnancy tests, ultrasound examinations and information on fetal development. The foundation also assists parents in obtaining clothing, supplies, baby formula and food, and access to medical procedures.

The foundation had applied for a $30,000 grant from the Charitable Trust to fund additional staff hours for nurses to meet with clients, as well as for additional training and supplies. The trust notified the foundation’s CEO, Heather Sells, by letter on June 26 that the request had been denied, citing “another challenging year” for the county’s grant program because requests for funds by the county’s nonprofits was nearly twice the amount of money available.

The letter did not include an explanation for why the grant application had been declined but invited Sells to contact Petroff if she wanted feedback.

“It sounded to me like they didn’t even read the grant, but that’s just my thoughts on the matter,” Sells told the Maryland Independent. “Because if they would have read the grant in detail, they would have discovered that it wasn’t written directly to pro-life services, it was for education and to help families in Charles County be more healthy.”

Vivian Mills, the charitable trust’s executive director, told the Maryland Independent that what Petroff actually told Sells was that the board was uncomfortable with providing taxpayer funds to support services that were either pro-life or pro-choice in nature, not solely pro-life services.

“All [of the board’s] decisions are nonpolitical,” Mills said. “We don’t have any political viewpoint or commitment of any kind whatsoever.”

Mills explained that the trust’s 10-member board adheres to a rigorous code of ethics and a conflict-of-interest policy, and follows standards of fairness, balance, accountability, transparency and accessibility when reviewing grant applications.

“We take these standards very, very seriously and we are certainly confident that we can uphold them,” Mills explained.

For the 2020 fiscal year grant cycle, the trust received 46 grant applications totaling nearly $2 million but was only able to fund 28 of them with the $784,100 available to the trust in this year’s budget allocated by the Charles County Board of Commissioners.

“It’s very competitive,” Mills explained. “Grant seeking is always competitive.”

Sandra McGraw, the outgoing chair of the charitable trust’s board, said that while the subject of the pro-life mission of the Catherine Foundation did come up during the board’s review of the grant request, it was not a deciding factor. What tipped the balance, she said, was that the request was to fund what she called “indirect services” — staff salaries and training — rather than expenses related directly to an organization’s programs or services for residents.

McGraw and Mills both said that the board had also voted to decline a grant application from another organization for the same reason.

Sells confirmed to the Maryland Independent that Petroff had told her that the board’s concern was over funding either pro-life or pro-choice services. CCRTL president Ali Rak likewise said that Sells had told her, “in the fuller context of the conversation [Petroff] did relay [to Sells] that they would not have funded abortion providers either, in the hypothetical.”

Rak also emphasized that CCRTL initiated the fundraising drive, not the Catherine Foundation.

“In [its] request for funds, the Catherine Foundation does not request money for political pro-life activism, which can by definition be the only way someone provides ‘pro-life services,’” Rak said in a written statement to the Maryland Independent. “Weighing pregnant women, taking their blood pressure, providing them an early ultrasound, and a urine-based pregnancy test is not exclusive to the pro-life movement, because if it is, then we have a far more pressing problem than” the Charitable Trust Board.

CCRTL’s announcement, which was emailed to subscribers, posted on its website and shared on Facebook, also called on readers to donate to the foundation to make up for the funds that had been requested from the county.

Despite feeling that her organization had been discriminated against, Sells harbors no ill will toward Petroff for conveying the message.

She “was very kind in her approach,” Sells said in a written follow-up. “She sensed my frustration. I am thankful she was honest with me so that we can spread the word and find funding elsewhere. Our goal in all of this is to awaken the people of Charles County (the people who love what we do) to give more than they ever have.”

“We are presently seeking funds to increase our nurse hours, and we trust God will supply as he always does,” Sells said.

Twitter: @PaulIndyNews

Twitter: @​PaulIndyNews