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Michigan Spark Grant applications open May 1; nearly $23 million available for public recreation projects

Additional pathway to Spark Grants funding will be open to ‘opportunity communities’ through new partnership with Michigan’s philanthropy network

After record interest in first-round Michigan Spark Grants funding, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources will reopen grant applications starting May 1 with up to $23 million available for public recreation improvement projects in areas most affected by COVID-19. To boost grant access for those in greatest need, the DNR also announced a partnership that will connect identified “opportunity communities” with funding and the support of Michigan’s philanthropic network.

“Every Michigander deserves equitable access to the outdoors that’s close to home no matter where they live, and that includes having quality local park and trail resources at the neighborhood and community levels,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “Under the bipartisan Building Michigan Together Plan I signed last year, we made history with the largest one-time investment ever in our state and local parks. Michigan Spark Grants are unique because they align support directly with each community’s diverse recreational needs. We’re excited that these grants will help deliver critical funding to ‘spark’ more opportunities for residents to enjoy nature and connect with family and friends.”

Earlier this year, the DNR awarded $14.2 million in first-round funding to 21 communities. A great start, but interest in the Michigan Spark Grants program far exceeded the department’s expectations.

“We were astounded by the response to the first round,” said Dan Lord, assistant chief of the DNR’s Finance and Operations Division. “In a normal year, our top three recreation grant programs – the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Recreation Passport and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund – on average receive around 150 applications seeking between $50 million and $60 million."

“For the Michigan Spark Grants, we accepted over 460 applications requesting more than $280 million,” Lord added. “It was clear we had tapped into a tremendous need. We also knew there was more work to do in supporting some communities and ensuring they have the capacity and resources to prepare, apply for and administer a grant like this.”

A new philanthropy-focused partnership through the Council of Michigan Foundations will make Michigan Spark Grants funding available this summer to communities identified as “opportunity communities” – those that traditionally have been under-resourced and under-represented and who lack access to parks and recreation.

This innovative model aligns with federal funding requirements to support communities adversely affected by COVID-19, along with helping to improve and redevelop existing public recreation in communities that historically have experienced barriers to accessing these types of grants.

Connecting ‘opportunity communities’ to resources

To create this new grantmaking model, the DNR sought advice and perspective from an advisory group composed of philanthropy, regional government planning, parks and recreation, and other grant-making entities with relevant expertise. What emerged was the framework for a grant program with a more equity-focused application and evaluation process, a new approach that gives funding priority to opportunity communities – areas that lack public recreation spaces and have a high proportion of households that are struggling financially and a high number of residents with physical and mental health disparities.

The DNR’s new partnership is aimed at removing barriers facing these nearly 40 opportunity communities in accessing not only funding, but also the needed supporting services for expanding a community’s ability to successfully manage and implement recreation projects.

Recognizing that the Council of Michigan Foundations – representing Michigan’s united, diverse philanthropic community, and an original member of the Michigan Spark Grants advisory group – has the structure and network in place through its members to engage and support the opportunity communities, the DNR forged a groundbreaking partnership with CMF to align $27.5 million in Michigan Spark Grant funds (the balance of the program’s original $65 million allocation) through CMF member foundations to support communities in developing and implementing their local public recreation projects.

“Through this innovative partnership with the DNR, Michigan philanthropy will help to ensure community voice is centered in this work to advance equitable and transformative change for opportunity communities across the state,” said Kyle Caldwell, CMF president and CEO. “We look forward to supporting our foundation members as we collectively work to expand access to outdoor recreation spaces and programs for communities that have been historically under-represented and under-resourced.”

Michigan Spark Grants have proved much different than other grant programs offered by the DNR.

“We were very encouraged by the willingness of the DNR to do something different to further broaden access to recreational opportunities,” said J.J. Tighe, director of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation’s Parks & Trails Initiative, and a member of the Michigan Spark Grants advisory group. “We had to find creative solutions that didn’t just create a new grant program, but could instead leverage the locally based resources of community foundations to provide grantees with additional support, remove barriers and create the conditions for each community to have long-term success.”

Multiple paths, one goal

“The partnership with CMF expands the reach of the Michigan Spark Grants program and better supports grantees interested in bringing more public recreation opportunities to their residents,” said Tighe. “It’s about trying to ensure that everyone who wants to take advantage of grant dollars can find a way there.”

Prospective applicants can visit the Michigan Spark Grants webpage to determine their eligibility and best prepare to complete the grant application:

  • The final round (nearly $23 million) of Michigan Spark Grants through the DNR (applications due June 26).
  • The $27.5 million subset of CMF Michigan Spark Grant funding and additional resources available to opportunity communities (details coming this summer).
  • Other DNR recreation grant funding opportunities, including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Recreation Passport and the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (apply by April 1 each year).

How to apply

Applicants can seek a minimum of $100,000 up to a maximum of $1 million. Applications opening May 1 are due June 26, with award announcements expected in late September. Michigan Spark Grants, administered by the DNR, are available to entities that are legally constituted to provide public recreation, such as:

  • Units of government or public authorities.
  • Federally designated tribes.
  • Regional or statewide organizations that are established with a recreational focus.
  • Consortiums of local units of government or public authorities.

Interested applicants are encouraged to visit the Michigan Spark Grants webpage for more on the application process, including a few steps that need to be completed before submitting an application, as well as a helpful webinar that answers a lot of common questions.

Learn more about Michigan Spark Grants and all DNR-administered grants at

Contact: Dan Lord, 517-290-5603