Success of OHA’s Grants Program is a Strong Reason to Increase OHA’s PLT Share


Keli‘i Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

When I first became a Trustee in 2016, one of my goals was to work with my fellow Trustees to reform OHA’s Grants Program. At the time, there had been serious concerns over the integrity of the program, including concerns over favoritism.

In 2018, for example, the Hawaiʻi State Office of the Auditor conducted a performance audit of OHA’s Grants Program. Auditor’s Report #18-08 found that competitive grants, which are those grants awarded as a result of a public solicitation process, were not consistently monitored or evaluated. The report also found that a disproportionate amount of OHA funding was being awarded in a non-competitive manner to various causes and individuals.

In 2021, the auditor conducted a follow up to the 2018 report and its accompanying recommendations. By this time, OHA had taken strides to tighten its monitoring and evaluation processes, implementing all but one of the recommendations from the 2018 Auditor’s report. Bottom line, OHA trustees took seriously the concerns of the 2018 report and used it to improve the grants program.

Looking back, the Hawaiian community and the entire state can now be proud of the work that OHA has accomplished to instill integrity and effectiveness in its grants program. Former OHA Grants Manager Maile Luʻuwai, CEO Sylvia Hussey and the grants team are to be commended for effectively implementing the directives of the Board of Trustees. This is a great example of using the auditor’s constructive criticism as a roadmap for improvement. Rather than shoot the messenger, OHA applied what the auditor shared and it resulted in a fair, impartial and well-run grants program that OHA can truly be proud of.

OHA’s grants program today serves a broad segment of the Hawaiian community. In 2021, OHA awarded over $16 million in grant funding, even more than it received in Public Lands Trust (PLT) revenues. This figure includes funding of programs ranging from Native Hawaiian-focused charter schools to the protection of iwi kūpuna, and from family support services to support of Native Hawaiian farmers.

Relatedly, it’s well known that OHA currently receives only $15.1 million in PLT revenues, despite strong evidence that OHA is entitled to much, much more. As in past years, OHA proposed legislation in 2022 to increase its pro-rata share of PLT revenues. OHA’s PLT bill died, although Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole introduced a separate proposal, Senate Bill 2021.

What is not as well-known, unfortunately, is all of the behind-the-scenes work that OHA has undertaken to ensure that every penny OHA receives from PLT revenues goes out to organizations and programs that directly support the Hawaiian community, via its Grants Program.

Simultaneously, OHA has taken a good look at its operations and made difficult decisions that resulted in a major reorganization of internal structure and personnel. In doing so, OHA walked the walk, and sent a message that additional PLT revenue would be spent wisely and distributed directly to the Hawaiian community (through the bolstered Grants Program), rather than on overhead.

It has been a long journey from where OHA’s Grants Program started to where it is now, and years of outside scrutiny from the State Auditor has been a major catalyst for the vast improvements that have been made.

At the time of this writing, I do not know what will become of our PLT efforts at the legislature in 2022. But at least we took significant, meaningful action in our own house, to prove that OHA would be a good steward of the additional funding.

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