What does United Way do?

Tri-City HeraldJuly 20, 2013 

It’s one of the best-known Tri-City nonprofits.

But it’s not always the best understood, perhaps because of the complexity of its work.

“I think that for many people, it’s, ‘You raise money,’” said Beverly Weber, president and CEO of United Way of Benton and Franklin Counties. “Yes, but to what end. (For us), it’s about improving lives.”

The local chapter has been around since the late 1950s, one of about 1,300 United Way chapters across the country. In recent years, it’s taken on a new focus and approach that involves doing more than the traditional United Way work of raising money and providing dollars to other nonprofits.

It’s leading a communitywide effort called Community Solutions, which aims to address pressing community needs in the areas of education, health, safety and self-sufficiency. About 200 community leaders spent 1,000 hours in 2007 identifying the needs and creating a plan with several objectives — everything from ensuring local children are prepared for kindergarten to increasing the number of Tri-City-area residents who seek preventive health care.

The idea is to maximize resources in the community and provide a coordinated response that gets at the root of underlying issues, officials said.

LoAnn Ayers, a United Way board member, likened the approach to healing a wound rather than constantly applying Band-Aids.

“What has been so exciting is the leverage (the effort) has brought. We’re looking at what’s really causing the problems,” she said.

So far, three initiatives involving numerous partner organizations have sprung out of the Community Solutions work. The first, Our Babies Can’t Wait, involves everything from health screenings to parenting workshops — all with the goal of laying solid foundations for the area’s youngest residents. The other initiatives, Prepared by 20 and Attendance Matters, focus on school success and reducing chronic absenteeism.

The local United Way ranks in the top 7 percent of all the U.S. chapters for the success and effectiveness of its Community Solutions work, said Marilyn Davis, the chapter’s vice president.

The local United Way still makes grants to other nonprofits, though that now is part of the broader Community Solutions approach.

The United Way board — which makes the grant decisions — considers how the objectives of the organizations seeking dollars line up with the Community Solutions plan and goals.

This year, grants are going to 22 organizations, supporting 38 programs — everything from Columbia Industries to Tri-Cities Chaplaincy to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton and Franklin Counties.

A few local nonprofit leaders said they’ve seen their United Way funding decline in recent years. United Way officials said the award amounts fluctuate based on multiple factors, including the chapter’s overall annual fundraising campaign.

The campaigns run from April through the following March; the 2012-13 campaign that wrapped up a few months ago ended with $4.07 million in pledges, compared to $4.37 million in 2011-12 and $4.54 million in 2010-11. (The chapter’s 990 tax forms are prepared on calendar years).

United Way will distribute $3.31 million in the community from the most recent campaign, including the money going to other nonprofits through the grants. That compares to $3.5 million from 2011-12 and $3.63 million from 2010-11.

The chapter also will spend about $610,000 on overhead costs and see $240,000 in uncollectible pledges, officials reported.

Davis said the economic ups and downs of the community play a big role in the success of the campaigns, and “we’re working especially diligently to find grant dollars — regional, national grant dollars to bring into the community.”

The chapter in recent months brought on a grant coordinator. It has 12 staff and also relies on a network of volunteers, including the 50-plus members of the board of directors.

Along with its other work, the local United Way chapter also provides oversight of the local 2-1-1 health and human service referral program and facilitates the federal Emergency Shelter and Food Program in the community.

United Way officials say the chapter is making a difference, with thousands of residents touched each year by services it helps provide.

“I am so proud of the work that United Way is doing,” Davis said. “It’s having a really positive impact on improving lives in the community.”

Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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