The Union Square Awards are closing up shop.
The Union Square Fund Board – administrators of the awards – announced earlier this month that it is no longer taking applications and will cease operations within three years.
The announcement is bad news for the city’s non-profit community organizations, many of which got a much-needed financial shot in the arm from the Award, which can total as much as $50,000.
“Receiving a grant from them provided our organization with technical assistance and recognition which, as a small non-profit, was invaluable,” said Janet Marcic, executive director of the Maura Clarke-Ita Ford Center, a 2000 award recipient. “They were a great organization and it will be missed opportunity for all non profits who have not have the pleasure of working with them. That is very sad news.”
“The Union Square Awards were one of the few grant makers who really understand the importance of general operating support,” said Red Hook Initiative Fonder and Executive Director Jill Eisenhard. “For our group, and most others, this kind of support is critical to keeping an organization alive.
“Getting a Union Square Award (2007) was like getting a stamp of approval that told other funders and individual donors that our social change work was significant and truly making a difference for the lives of people in Red Hook,” Eisenhard said. “Their support was instrumental in a year when we were moving our work to a deeper and larger level.”
The Awards were founded in 1998 by an anonymous New York artist to support up-and-coming non-profit groups and individuals who were providing any range of services to a target community or constituency.
The artist died before the first awards were made, but his family continued the program in his honor.
The award meant seed money for many agencies that have since become major players in the city and nationally, including Make the Road New York (2007), The Arab American Association of New York (2007), Groundswell Community Mural Project (2005), The Ali Forney Center (2003), Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (2004), The Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center (1999), and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (1999.)
Former Award executive director Iris Morales once said she visited each nominee and made sure to ask people in the community if they knew about the group’s work, figuring that “if nobody knew them they were not doing much.”
Morales in January was named director of the Manhattan Neighborhood Network’s new El Barrio Firehouse Community Media Center.
In a Jan. 11, 2012 announcement the Board noted that over 13 years it has given more than $16 million to 238 emerging organizations in New York City.
“After careful consideration, we have decided to phase out grantmaking over the next three years. Commitments to current grantees will be met as planned, and the Union Square Fund will distribute an additional $1.5 million through the 2012… grant programs.”
No new applications will be considered and nominations are suspended, though current awardees will continue to receive technical assistance through 2014.
The award “gave us our first big push,” said Arab American Association of New York Director Linda Sarsour. “ So many doors quickly opened for us afterwards and we owe much of our success to them.”
“Winning the Union Square Award was an essential part of becoming a stable, lasting institution,” said Make The Road New York co-founder Andrew Friedman. “We hired one of our first full-time organizers – we now have 17 – with the money. More importantly, winning the award meant that we could focus our energy on winning organizing campaigns.”
Groundswell Community Mural Project Executive Director Amy Sananman said, “This recognition was the catalyst for an extraordinary period of growth for our organization. Groundswell’s budget in 2005 was just over $300,000; today, we project a near $1M dollar operating budget. In 2005, we engaged 350 youth in our programs while today we reach over 800 young people city-wide each year.
“This programmatic growth and institutional development would truly not have been possible without the recognition and support provided by the Union Square Awards.”
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