Impact key for United Way

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on local United Way fundraising strategies to cope with the economic slump.

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Five hundred working-poor families will be able to buy low-cost homes through a $1 million government-funded program at the United Way of Forsyth County.

Families participating in the five-year program, backed with federal and city matching funds of $500,000 each, will put at least $50 a month for at least 12 months into “individual development accounts” for home downpayments, and enroll in a 10-month series of “economic literacy” courses on topics ranging from credit and mortgages to banking and budgeting.

Based on a family’s income and other factors, those funds would be matched from two to four times.

“The most proven way to move people from welfare to work or from dependence to independence is asset accumulation,” says Ron Drago, CEO of Forsyth’s United Way. “One asset more than others changes everything, and that’s home ownership.”

The program, which began July 1 and has received a $75,000 administrative grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation, will be featured in the United Way’s annual fundraising drive that begins Sept. 17 and is chaired by Brenda Diggs, senior vice president at Wachovia.

In the face of a tough economy, the United Way aims to raise slightly more than the $17.5 million raised last year by deepening ties with employers and emphasizing its community role, Drago says.

“There’s only one challenge, and that’s the economy,” he says. “Our approach is to fall back on the steady, true relationships we have in terms of minimizing the impact of the economy and maximizing relationships with those companies.”

Unlike other United Ways that in recent years have seen donors designate a growing share of donations for non-member agencies, Drago says, Forsyth’s United Way has reduced such designations by 10 percent a year by promoting giving to its general “community care fund” for local agencies and needs.

“We’ve put a laser focus on United Way’s mission as a community-impact organization and our community care fund, which allows the greatest discretion in terms of the United Way doing the most effective job in putting money where it will achieve the greatest impact,” he says

Of the total raised last year, 84 percent went to the general fund. And Forsyth’s United Way received $58 per resident – more than any other local United Way in the United States.

The United Way also aims to use email to build closer ties with donors giving $1,000 or more — 3,700 individuals last year, representing 39 percent of the campaign, up from roughly 25 percent five years ago.

The organization’s message — illustrated by the home-ownership program, which coordinates the work of 10 separate agencies – underscores its role of “not focusing on agencies but on important needs in the community for which the United Way has developed a long-term impact strategy,” Drago says. 

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