United Way Refocusing On Programs

June 1, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

The next evolution of the United Way of America (UWA) will sharpen the focus of the $4-billion organization while "driving a stake in the ground" on the definition of program success and reducing a 1,300-affiliate structure.

UWA President and CEO Brian Gallagher said consistent metrics is a challenge faced by most systems.

"This is the next evolution of us, from a fundraising mission to a community change mission, and this is really getting focused and declaring our commitment to national, long-term, very concrete goals that will then drive strategies that get created locally and nationally," Gallagher said. "We believe that if real change is going to happen, we’ve got to commit ourselves to these goals."

"Goals for the Common Good: The United Way Challenge to America," released at the United Way of America’s annual conference May 15, is a culmination of 18 months of focus groups, market research and work with content experts.

UWA’s report points to three primary goals by the year 2018, targeting education, income and health, with the idea of cutting high school dropout rates in half, reducing by half the number of financial unstable working families, and increasing by a third the number of youth and adults who are healthy and avoid risky behavior.

According to the report, three indicators are getting worse: working families spending 40 percent or more of their income on housing; low birth weight babies, and healthy and risk-avoiding adults older than 18. Four indicators show little to no improvement: working families that remain low-income; lower-income families with checking or savings accounts and a balance of at least $300; homeownership among lower-income working families, and healthy and risk-avoiding youth. There were five indicators that showed some improvement, but slow progress: kindergarten readiness, fourth-grade reading proficiency, on-time high school graduation, productivity among young adults, and children’s health insurance.

To accelerate change, Gallagher pointed to three challenges for the $4-billion nonprofit: determining the national goals, UWA’s Live United campaign (www.liveunited.org), and creating a more seamless organizational structure that puts resources toward achieving those goals. "We’re probably going to have to redesign ourselves, which probably means fewer United Ways," he said. UWA and its affiliates have committed to the redesign by the end of this year, Gallagher said, while executing that new structure in 2009.

"We find it true, not just within United Way but across the country. United Ways were working broadly on these issues but they didn’t necessarily have the same focus," Gallagher said. For instance, 66 percent of all local United Ways say they’re working in educational areas, he said, but some define school readiness differently, basing it on improving vocabulary rates or cognitive skills, or looking at academic achievement as third grade versus fourth grade. Instead of defining success as increasing a local United Way after school program by 50 slots, Gallagher said, the organization will look for ways of how the activity is reducing the dropout rate, or how it partners with other nonprofits achieve that.

"We might have many of the same partners, but the expectation and definitions of success may be much different," said Gallagher, adding that UWA already is "locking arms" with national corporations, large private foundations and other groups, like America’s Promise.

"Ultimate accountability is results and, ‘Are you actually achieving results against your mission,’" Gallagher said. Research shows clearly that what drives trust and confidence in the nonprofit sector, he said, is to get results about the things people care about. "This will have an impact hopefully at the sector level that will be the impetus to drive us all together, and work on strategies that will actually move the needle in theses areas."

In the past five years, Gallagher said the trend has been that donors are increasingly giving to specific issues, and not designating through UWA to an official charity, after 13 years of the opposite. It’s a trend he expects will, and wants, to continue. "We want donors to know that they can invest their time and money, or just lend their voice, against these issues."

"That’s what the American people said to us, in terms of that’s how we think you can advance the common good, to work on these things, and give us a chance to be involved in that. I think we’ll see an acceleration of donors’ investments into these areas."  NPT

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