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Redefining partnerships

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By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — As it prepares to distribute funds to local health and human-services programs, United Way of Forsyth County aims to improve the way it works with partner agencies to make sure those funds have the greatest impact.

“We know that donors and the community at large, with any nonprofit, are expecting increased accountability and results with the investment of their hard-earned dollars,” says Eric Aft, vice president for community impact at United Way.

Based on months of review by eight panels consisting of 107 volunteers, United Way’s Community Investment Cabinet in May recommended to the United Way board that it distribute nearly $11.5 million to 76 programs.

Chaired by Greg Cox, senior vice president and city executive in Winston-Salem for Bank of America, the cabinet this year told agencies United Way faces big fundraising challenges because of the sluggish economy, but still asked them to submit funding requests reflecting their actual needs.

“We wanted them to be realistic about where the campaign was, but also to communicate what their need was,” says Aft, who joined United Way last September after serving as president of United Way of Central Virginia in Lynchburg.

Although the cabinet’s recommendation falls short of the $12.1 million that 34 partner agencies requested for 77 programs, he says, United Way does not expect any program will need to reduce services.

“For some folks it will mean they will have to expand their efforts in their own fundraising activities, that they will not be able to expand programs they had hoped to, that they will have to be more creative in the use of staff,” he says.

United Way also has begun an effort to overhaul its funding process to make it more “strategic and intentional in understanding the measurable outcomes that are being achieved with United Way dollars,” Aft says.

The effort, likely to result in changes next year, began this month with the collection of data to map trends in a broad range of local health and human-services needs, and in funding available to address them.

The research also will include a survey, in September or October, to track community perceptions of local needs.

Based on the research and survey, United Way’s Human Services Collaborative will set priorities for addressing urgent needs.

That group, which includes United Way and community representatives and is chaired by Jim Nanton, chief information officer for Sara Lee Branded Apparel, likely would complete its work by mid-November, Aft says.

United Way then will ask volunteers and partners agencies with expertise in fields the community says are critical to help set goals, decide the roles individual agencies should play, and figure out how to measure progress in meeting those goals.

“Rather than reacting to requests for funding that each of those agencies provides,” Aft says, “it seems like we have an opportunity to bring everybody who’s working in that arena to the table, and see what activities needs to be undertaken to create the outcome we all want to see achieved.”

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