As community foundations take on the position of community educator and partner of peer organizations, several United Way affiliates have assumed similar roles. The Heart of West Michigan United Way in Grand Rapids initially started bus tours to orient new board members, according to Maribeth Groen, marketing manager. As staff began participating, the idea came about to use the tours to engage donors.
United Way affiliates use workplace campaigns as a fundraising model and include company campaign coordinators on tours. The idea is company coordinators can learn about community need and share that information with co-workers, along with what the United Way is doing about it. That builds trust with the organization. Some larger companies have requested private tours, with one in particular organizing three separate tours for employees. The United Way typically provides transportation for open tours, but companies pay for private tours, according to Groen.
The Heart of West Michigan United Way hosts between six and 10 tours per year and tailors tours to a group’s area of interest. Tours typically include a conversation about a population referred to as Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) and an overview of two or three scheduled stops. When arriving on site, agency representatives typically provide a breakdown of services, a video presentation, and sometimes a past beneficiary who can talk about the organization’s work.
A key point made during the tour is that no one agency is able to address every issue in a community. It takes a network. A homeless family might have a critical need for shelter, but food security and workforce development could be additional required services.
“Our main progress is to show that there are so many wonderful agencies in the area and that it really does take collaboration,” said Groen.
Angel Romero, vice president of resource development, and Brett Martin, vice president of community impact, for the United Way of Greater Topeka in Kansas both believe that the affiliate is on the forefront of using community tours. The pair attended a storytelling conference in California and found the idea of tours is fairly new, even among nonprofit professionals seeking ways to share stories.
The United Way of Greater Topeka began its tour program in 2015 and typically runs two, three-hour tours per month. Each tour includes between 10 and 25 participants and three staff members: a navigator and two guides. Buses are provided as an in-kind gift by the city’s public transit provider, Topeka Metro, the benefit of having a metro official on the organization’s board. The metro bus has the added benefit of being less intrusive in communities visited, according to Romero. Metro buses commonly move through neighborhoods, unlike private buses and other vehicles.
Every tour makes the same two stops — the Avondale East NET Center and Pine Ridge public housing. Buses travel west, near organizational headquarters, to east, where median incomes are lowest. Participants are provided with a clipboard of material, including neighborhood breakdowns, and are engaged in a dialogue throughout the tour.
The format and route of the tour has evolved over time to reflect changes in the affiliate’s work. Basic needs such as food security have been incorporated more, according to Martin. They offer opportunities for “quick wins,” opportunities for supporters to make near-term improvements in families’ lives.
What has remained consistent is the lack of a hard ask. Giving is great, and staff does track giving fluctuations among participants. But, the focus of tours remains experiential with the hope that participants share what they see with peers.
The tour engaged with primary employers in the region — Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas, Goodyear, and BNSF Railway — on workplace campaigns. A relationship with the nursing program at nearby Washburn University. That relationship helped lead to a primary care clinic and partnership with the nursing school for the Pine Ridge area residents. Such successes lead Romero to believe that affiliates throughout the country will soon follow suit with community impact tours.
“I think that as word spreads and we travel to more trainings, I can anticipate us taking more calls from more communities expressing interest,” Romero said. “United Ways are looking to communicate their work better . . . as United Ways think about different approaches to what they do, I can see this as something that can come up more.”