Forsyth United Way focusing on impact

Eric Aft
Eric Aft

Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Because its annual fund drive last fall fell five percent short of its goal, raising just under $17.5 million,

United Way of Forsyth County has cut its operating budget by five percent and expects to give $1.1 million less than it did a year ago to its 34 partner agencies.

The decline in giving to its partner agencies will exceed the shortfall in last fall’s drive because giving to those agencies a year ago included $500,000 United Way drew from its reserves to address rising demand for services in the face of the recession.

“Because the market had been so strong, the reserves had grown, and we were able to invest those monies back into services,” says Eric Aft, chief operating officer at United Way. “We’re not in the business to just hold onto dollars. We want to invest those dollars back into the community.”

While it set a campaign goal last spring that turned out to be unrealistic after the economy and capital markets tanked in the fall, United Way this year will wait until August to set a goal for the drive, which will be chaired by Keith Vaughan of law firm Womble Carlyle.

“We want to be realistic but also want to challenge the community because the need is tremendous,” Aft says.

And United Way volunteers who currently are reviewing the effectiveness and impact of partner agencies before deciding how much funding they should receive face the
challenge of divvying up a smaller pie.

The volunteers will base their decisions on how well the programs United Way supports are achieving their goals, and on how well those programs are targeting the greatest needs in the community, Aft says.

In recent years, he says, United Way has worked closely with its partner agencies to help them better measure their impact and identify their target populations.

“We’re looking at results, looking at how well people are able to make a difference against the goals we’ve set out,” he says.

United Way has worked with the agencies to set goals that reflect nine United Way priority needs in the community.

And those needs have increased in the face of the recession, Aft says.

“Emergency-assistance providers are seeing people they’ve never seen before,” he says. “In some cases, counseling agencies are seeing folks not able to pay as much as they had been able to pay in the past. Across the board, people are seeing an increase in demand.”

While many agencies are doing a good job securing the resources they need to manage their clients’ needs, Aft says, many other agencies are “struggling with financial challenges to meet the need.”

To meet the rising need for services, United Way teamed up earlier this year with the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust and the Winston-Salem Foundation to create an emergency response fund.

While United Way committed $300,000 to the fund, mainly drawing on its reserves that subsequently have shrunk because of the fall in the capital markets, the fund has not yet released any money because local agencies are doing a good job managing their own costs and because agencies can compete for federal stimulus funds, Aft says.

The three groups that created the emergency fund have been meeting every other month since November with a broad array of service-providers to monitor their needs.

“We believe the need will continue to be high in the months to come and we want to make sure we are good stewards of the resources and make good decisions,” Aft says.

United Way is coordinating the local distribution of federal stimulus funds for emergency food and shelter programs.

In the wake of the disappointing results of last fall’s fund drive, United Way cut its operating costs for the current fiscal year by five percent, including less spending for meetings, training and travel, and greater use of electronic communications to save on printing.

United Way, which employs 22 people, also will not fill an open fundraising job.

While focusing on essential operating needs, Aft says, United Way also is working to “make sure you’re in a position to still operate to achieve success.”

All nonprofits “have to be very smart so you don’t damage your ability to help the community, while also making sure you are staying within reduced budgets everybody is facing,” he says. “And we’re in that same position: How do you make sure you are serving the community well with fewer resources?”

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