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Plugging gaps

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While it is a big challenge, raising money is only half the job for United Way of Central Carolinas, which each year also must decide how to most effectively invest dollars contributed from the community.

Over the next few months, more than 300 volunteers will spend nearly 10,000 hours reviewing and making recommendations on funding requests from United Way’s 100 agencies to support 214 programs they operate.

The process can be “gut-wrenching,” says Ned Curran, a volunteer for nearly 20 years who in recent years headed the allocations process and next year will chair United Way board.

Deciding which programs to fund is tough, Curran says, because requests exceed available funds by millions of dollars, leaving United Way volunteers with the job of trying to pick from among the community’s most urgent needs.

In its just-ended annual fund drive, United Way raised $39.1 million.

United Way officials say using those dollars to best serve the neediest people continues to be the big challenge for volunteers reviewing agency requests, a process chaired this year by Mac McCarley, Charlotte city attorney.

But United Way also has begun to retool the way it screens requests and hands out money to make sure the dollars it raises go to programs that most effectively address the most critical needs, says Angela Hubbard, senior vice president for community building and administrative services.

The goal, she says, is to integrate the roles United Way plays raising and distributing money, making clear to donors the impact their dollars have meeting the most pressing community needs, particularly through efforts coordinated with other nonprofit and government agencies.

“There’s a huge gap between what people need and what United Way by itself can deliver,” she says. “We focus on making sure we collaborate with other organizations, and collaborate to define those gaps.”

To best target its dollars, United Way this year is asking member agencies not just to identify needs they aim to address, but also to show how their programs will help fill gaps in services.

That approach is part of a larger effort to better integrate the allocations process, and to make it more strategic and collaborative, Hubbard says, an effort she says will require improving the way United Way collects, makes sense of, and shares data about programs it supports and their impact.

In the fourth quarter of 2004, United Way began a three-year effort to convert to a new software program its management of data on the effectiveness and performance of organizations and programs it funds.

The new eCFund software, which is provided by Hawaii-based SeaBrooks Inc. and is being piloted at 20 agencies, will let them and United Way volunteers submit real-time data and comments online, and will generate reports measuring programs’ results.

United Way also is reviewing its entire process for volunteer review of agency funding requests, and is looking for ways to work more closely with government agencies and encourage member agencies to consider the merger of organizations, programs and back-office operations that may overlap.

“We know we need to make some changes,” Hubbard says, “but we want to do it in a way that makes sense.”

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