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United Way retools – Strategy being phased in

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By Todd Cohen

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Reflecting a national trend, the United Way of Greater Greensboro is radically changing how it does business so it can play a lead role in fixing community problems.

Rather than simply fund its 33 member agencies, the United Way will work with its members to build formal coalitions – among themselves and with non-members — to attack the toughest local social ills.

“We need to move from being a manager of a process to being a leadership organization around building strong communities and neighborhoods,” says Neil Belenky, president of Greensboro’s United Way.

The new funding strategy will be phased in over three to five years, and the only United Way member agencies that won’t receive funding will be those that fail to team up with other groups on joint projects that meet the new funding guidelines.

“We’re going to build on the platform of our agencies,” Belenky  says. “The only agencies that are going to be losers are agencies that don’t want to collaborate.”

Based on a survey and a retreat that included member agencies, the United Way initially will focus on two areas: helping youngsters succeed in school, and preparing individuals to get and keep good jobs.

Donors can target their contributions to those focus areas, which also will get one-fourth of growth in United Way funding this year.

“In order for organizations to receive funding, they will have to come up with formal joint ventures because the assumption is that a systemic approach requires partnerships,” Belenky says. “You can’t do it alone.”

In addition, coalitions seeking funds will need to spell out the impact their initiatives will have so the United Way can measure their effectiveness.

No initiatives have been selected yet, but Belenky says school success was selected as a focus area because of an existing program rooted in collaboration.

That program, Bridges to Success, is backed by the United Way and involves partnerships in which parents work closely with elementary schools in poor neighborhoods.

A pilot project at Hampton Elementary School, where test scores and parental involvement are up and absenteeism is down, will be expanded to six more schools.

In the United Way’s new funding strategy, at least three other focus areas will be added over the next three to five years: enabling adults to live with dignity, promoting community leadership and safe neighborhoods, and meeting basic needs such as blood for emergency preparedness and shelter for the homeless.

“Over time, 100 percent of all money we raise will be directed to those goals,” as well as others the United Way may add, Belenky says.

The United Way last year raised nearly $14.5 million.

Julia Nile, president and chief executive officer of Family Service of the Piedmont, a United Way agency, says the changes in the United Way’s strategy were inevitable.

“It’s got to happen because I think the old way of doing United Way business will not be successful for them in the future,” says Nile, whose United Way agency offers a broad range of services in Guilford County.

“Whereas the United Way used to be the only game in town for charitable giving, they’re now competing with other charities for the donor’s dollar, and also competing with the Internet,” she says.

Belenky says the strategic shift is being driven by donors.

“Donors now see themselves more as advocates than philanthropists,” he says. “They want measurable change, and they want measurable change around things that are important to them.”

To support and promote its new goals, the United Way in September will launch a new Web site featuring online discussions and information about the goals. The site also will allow visitors to make donations.

Like the Greensboro affiliate, hundreds of local United Ways throughout the United States have been revamping their strategies, focusing on issues rather than agencies.

The shift is a direct response to a variety of factors, including the financial scandal that resulted in the ouster of the president of the United Way of America, and increasing competition for local charitable dollars.

And in the face of increasingly complex social problems, Belenky says, the United Way wants to play the critical role of spurring agencies to work together to find solutions.

In Winston-Salem, the United Way of Forsyth County is bucking the national trend, establishing funding priorities, funding only its members, and even reducing its membership to 37 agencies from 48 in the past five years.

“We are focused on our partner agencies,” says Ron Drago, president of the Forsyth United Way.       

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