United Way aims to close gaps

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At Crisis Assistance Ministry, while the number of low-income households in financial crisis the agency can serve has remained flat in recent years, their bills and the complexity of their problems have grown.

At the Council for Children’s Rights, the ranks of youngsters who need legal assistance, and the difficulties they face, also have surged.

Both Charlotte agencies are among 97 that depend on funding from United Way of Central Carolinas to help bridge the gap between the demand for services and the resources available to provide them.

Now in its 75th year, United Way is in the midst of its annual drive, aiming to raise $44 million to support its partner agencies as they work to address critical community problems.

United Way announced on Nov. 6 that it had raised nearly $34.2 million and expected to fall short of its goal by $1 million when the campaign ends Nov. 16.

While that goal dwarfs the $139,000 United Way raised in 1931 when it was formed as “Emergency Relief,” the organization’s core mission remains the same, says Ned Curran, board chair at United Way and president and CEO of The Bissell Companies.

Aiming to help charitable agencies address the needs of people left hungry and homeless by the Great Depression, Curran says, a group of volunteers teamed up to knock on employers’ doors for contributions for those agencies.

United Way still is focused on marshaling community support and collaboration to tackle urgent social problems, he says.

On average, partner agencies’ requests for United Way funds exceed the dollars it raises by 50 percent to 100 percent, Curran says.

Crisis Assistance Ministry, for example, receives $550,000 from United Way, or over one-sixth its $3 million annual operating budget.

That support has remained stable but has declined as a percentage of the agency’s annual budget over the past six years, a period when demand has increased for its services, including financial assistance, financial consulting and clothing and household goods, says Carol Hughes, executive director.

Last year, the agency distributed over $7.4 million, the most in its 31-year history, and many of its clients face multiple problems like chronic illness, old age, inadequate transportation, flat wages for low-income workers, and reductions in working hours for many workers.

Hughes says support from United Way “forms a critical base from which we can raise the increased dollars necessary to meet the growth in need.”

United Way also provides roughly one-third of the $1.6 million annual operating budget of the Council for Children’s Rights.

The agency can serve no more than 3,000 children each year, but 5,000 children were referred to it last year, a number that has grown 25 percent over five years, says Brett Loftis, executive director.

And many of those children face multiple and often-interconnected issues ranging from mental-health problems to addiction and physical and sexual abuse.

“With increased demand, we can count on United Way to be a stable funding stream,” Loftis says.

Gloria Pace King, United Way president, says community needs “are always going to outstrip what we’re able to raise.”

So United Way works continually to get its message to the community about local needs and its agencies’ services and impact, she says.

Critical to telling that story, she says, are thousands of volunteers who raise money for United Way, deciding how it will be invested in the community, and serving on its board and those of its partner agencies.

To better address critical community needs, United Way three years ago set itself the goal of being “the most admired community-impact organization,” King says.

A key strategy for meeting that goal, she says, is to diversify the organization’s revenue stream by seeking grants and looking for funding from new sources such as the motor-sports industry.

United Way also has focused more on strengthening its staff through recruiting and professional development.

And it has worked to leverage community partnerships and foster community collaboration, teaming up with the Economic Development Council in Mooresville, for example, and investing in planning for the merger that led to the creation last summer of the Council for Children’s Rights.

Curran says United Way wants to be seen as a “solutions provider,” and is working to “be more engaged in planning and being a resource to other funding sources, primarily government.”

United Way also has tried to “become much more sophisticated about the effectiveness of the programs we fund,” he says, and to identify emerging issues and work with its partner agencies to focus resources on those issues.

And to meet its goal this year of increasing its annual drive by 7.5 percent, Curran says, United Way is working hard to expand its donor base.

“We’re a very prosperous community and we’ve enjoyed tremendous growth for decades,” he says. “And I think when people have an opportunity to hear the story, they’ve been generous. Our job is to reach as many people as we can.”

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