United Way focuses – Fundraising at record levels

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — With hundreds of local United Way affiliates throughout the U.S. moving to fund issues rather than member agencies, the United Way of Forsyth County has limited its funding to members while channeling dollars to more sharply defined issues.

“The rest of the country is getting back to where we’ve been all along,” says Ron Drago, president of the Winston-Salem based United Way.

In the past five years, the United Way has reduced to 37 from 48 the number of partner agencies it funds, and focused its funding priorities.

Those changes have paid off, Drago says: Fundraising at the United Way, which last year raised a record-high $16.7 million, has grown 39 percent over the past three years – and this fall’s goal is expected to total $18 million.

And for three straight years, the Forsyth United Way has raised the most money per capita among the 100 largest affiliates in the United States. Last year, it raised $58 per capita.

Nationally, a financial scandal at the United Way of America in the early 1990s, along with fierce competition for charitable dollars, have prompted local United Ways to look for new funding strategies.

In Greensboro, for example, the United Way will fund only those of its 33 member agencies that team up among themselves and with non-members to tackle the biggest issues facing the community.

In Winston-Salem, Drago says, the United Way has “never drifted too far away from our core purpose and our core history of being a community-based organization whose job is to understand the needs in the community and make financial investments and guide the process that results in people being helped.”

Three years ago, the United Way studied community needs and set funding priorities in the areas of at-risk children; the growing Hispanic population; services for the elderly; services for people with developmental and mental disabilities; and basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

And the United Way decided that over three years it would increase to 80 percent from 59 percent the share of its funding that supports those five priority areas.

The United Way also has launched initiatives to help its member agencies strengthen the way they do business.

In the past few years, for example, the United Way has invited agencies to apply for funding to improve the way they deliver services or collaborate with other groups.

A project led by Family Services Inc., for example, looked at ways that a handful of member agencies could better measure their impact on improving the lives of clients.

Drago says the United Way’s biggest challenge is “sustaining the kind of aggressive growth and the long record of success that we’ve been able to achieve and have come to expect of ourselves.”

Maintaining that growth is particularly challenging, he says, “in a community that is doing just fine but certainly doesn’t have the economic growth and firepower that a lot of other places have.”

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