Focus On Community Impact Has United Ways Changing

March 1, 2007       Marla Nobles      

The United Way of Dane County has seen a steady increase in fundraising revenue during the past several years, but you won’t hear much talk of that by United Way officials. What you will hear is how after nearly a decade of commitment to systems change, Dane County eliminated the racial achievement gap for 3rd grade reading, an issue that pervaded Madison, Wisc., and the surrounding communities for decades.

The United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg in Virginia pushed through a similar strategy for systems change nearly five years ago. The branch now boasts an increase in the number of area children who pass the kindergarten readiness test, an enhanced rate of literacy among local 3rd-graders, and a measurable improvement in the system of care in place to support Richmond’s elderly.

United Ways across the nation officially launched the Community Impact (CI) initiative during 2002. No longer basing success on financial accumulation during short stints, the United Way’s business model for decades, the local units now measure success in terms of change, and across much broader time frames. Benchmarking became the name of the game.

“Eyes glaze over when you start talking about systems change,” said United Way of America President and CEO Brian Gallagher of why it’s taken half a decade to see any measurable results from the CI transformation. “I think it’s fair to say that when we started in the beginning of ’02 at the national level, this was an aspiration. And I would say today, that there are very concrete results now that are beginning to show, including fundraising.”

According to Gallagher, a small group of local United Ways led the way, such as Dane County, which kicked off its own initiative years prior to the official launch, and United Way of Central Ohio, in Columbus, headed by Gallagher from 1996-2001. “We were working in our communities to identify the four or five most critical human issues (and create) development strategies to address (the issues),” said Gallagher. The goal was to “turn those strategies into investment products that donors could invest in, or people could volunteer for, or they could advocate public policy reform around,” he explained.

When Gallagher assumed his position at national in January 2002, the United Way system was split between branches that “saw themselves in that mission” and those that were primarily fundraisers. “We sold this, if selling is the right word, and within a 12-month period of time we had almost 90 percent of all 1,300 local United Ways committed to this CI mission,” he said.

Today, nearly half (46 percent) of those committed to the CI mission have “operationalized.” A study comparing the three stages of the movement showed a 12-percent increase in campaign fundraising associated with being at a higher stage of CI development. (The study applies to a typical Metro 4 local United Ways that raise at least $1 million.)

But it’s the measurable differences in the community that United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg CEO Sherrie Brach wants to talk about. And finally, she can. “One of the biggest challenges is that this is a long-term change,” said Brach. “This is not just something that you can do in one year and you see the difference. It took us five years to start to see some movement.”

Richmond began its transition to an impact model nearly seven years ago, first employing an outcomes model. Then in 2001, just prior to UWA’s nationwide launch of CI, the Richmond branch officially moved toward impact.

Of the days prior to CI, said Brach, “we were talking at the agency level. And now, with community impact, we’re able to apply the same types of things by looking at community measures and community change indicators. And now we’re moving the needle at the program level.” Richmond has also seen a steady 5 percent bump in fundraising revenue each of the past several years, due in large part to CI, said Brach.

The United Way of Dane County launched the impact initiative Schools of Hope in 1996. The objective with Schools of Hope, said Erika Monroe-Kane, director, communications and community engagement, was to address the racial achievement gap in 3rd grade reading in Madison, Wisc., where prior to CI, 25-30 percent of minority students were not meeting the state standards.

After seven years, Dane County was able to get that number down to less than 5 percent, said Gallagher, while “the fundraising line and the resource line went directly up the other way.”

Added Gallagher, “It’s about funding, but it’s also about so much more than funding.” Gallagher explained that Dane County convened school administrators, school board members, parents, teachers union, nonprofit agencies, even the local media — “keeping visibility on the change,” he said — and together they designed a set of strategies to close that gap.

“The fact is,” explained Gallagher, “education, like child protection, like healthcare, these are big bureaucratic, entrenched systems with lots of players that have been doing things the same way or at least a certain way for a long period of time.”

According to Brach, donations were declining prior to the start of the transformation. “I think it became a question of relevance. How are you relevant in today’s environment, and what’s the value that you bring? That drove us to really start to take a hard look.”

The changing workforce in the Greater Richmond and Petersburg communities factored into the relevance question. “We had a huge shift in 1997 here,” said Brach.  “We had a lot of headquarters companies and a very traditional community with a lot of the same leadership around for a long time. Well, we saw bank mergers, and just the dynamic of our business community started to change.”

Just as for-profits must adapt or go out of business, so too must nonprofits. “The workforce that (United Ways) appeal to for workplace donations is changing,” said Rick Cohen, former executive director of the National Center on Responsive Philanthropy, in Washington, D.C.  According to Cohen, by changing their structure, United Ways will better be able “to get at some of the nonprofits that are really supported by younger and more diverse contributors. So if they’re able to give to groups that don’t have a long track record, that don’t have the mainstream identity, but they’re much more connected to the composition of the workforce, that makes workplace donations work.”

Cohen explained that to stay afloat, a system such as the United Way must figure out how it can appeal to workplace givers who are not attracted to the mainstream groups, those that typically get support from the United Way. “Some of the groups they have continually supported over the years are relatively well off, compared to other nonprofits,” added Cohen, who said this sends the message that the United Way is “only funding the winners, and not sitting on the cutting edge of where nonprofits are going.”

The relevance issue, said Gallagher, is certainly a concern. “Donors are becoming more issue-oriented than agency-oriented,” said Gallagher.  “Therefore we have to be really smart about how we understand the issues that people care about and how they want to act on them.”  Gallagher noted the $100 million raised during 2005-06 by the nearly 100 women’s leadership societies and councils now inside local United Ways. “That didn’t exist until six years ago.”

On the other hand, of the criticism that the United Way system is obsolete, “I think it’s a misguided statement,” said Gallagher. “I don’t know how you can say that a $4 billion movement, with trust numbers increasing and donor satisfaction numbers increasing, and impact in communities increasing, is obsolete.”

According to Gallagher, the amount of money donors were passing through local United Ways to their favorite agency declined during each of the past three years, after 10 consecutive years of growth. “It’s plateaued and dropped,” said Gallagher.  “And what’s increased is donor’s investment in the issue products, for example, an education initiative, (or) a housing initiative that local United Ways have packaged for them.”

The key facet of the transformation is in that packaging, said Gallagher, called the Community Impact Agenda, a list of top-priority objectives unique to each United Way community. A survey of the surrounding communities resulted in three top-priority objectives for Richmond, including early childhood, homelessness, and the system of care for the elderly. At Dane County, seven goals resulted from community engagement techniques to uncover the critical issues in the community. “No one was saying 3rd grade literacy,” said Monroe-Kane. “But they were saying high school graduation – and we know that if we could impact 3rd grade literacy, we’d be able to impact high school graduation rates, the divergence between students of color and white students.”

United Ways needed to get more focused on the issues that were positively, or in many cases negatively, affecting communities and put more resources against them, said Gallagher.

Asked if he’d like to see the other 10 percent – those United Ways that still define themselves as fundraising organizations – shift as well, said Gallagher, “No. We sometimes get so caught up in, ‘Why isn’t it 100 percent?’ Significant change inside a company, inside a nonprofit organization, for a community, for a country, I would suggest is not about getting 100 percent consensus. It’s about creating a powerful vision for a different future that creates value for the majority of stakeholders and folks that you serve.” And in some communities, added Gallagher, a fundraising United Way may be exactly what a particular community needs.  NPT