United Way retools

Published 10:07 am Saturday, August 29, 2009

Businesses aren’t the only organizations working hard to adapt to a difficult economy and a rapidly changing society.

So too are non-profit organizations. Though charitable donations have shrunk during the recent recession, community needs are greater than ever. Crime, joblessness, poverty, family dysfunction and sickness are pervasive in this and other communities.

Smart non-profits are reorganizing and refocusing, with a mission of being accountable to their donors and getting the most bang for their precious dollars.

The Franklin/Southampton Area United Way, on whose board of directors I have served for the past couple of years, is among those rethinking traditional strategies. It’s been a tedious but enlightening process, made easier by the talents and efforts of leaders like Anne Bryant, Anne Williams and Cindy Thomason.

For decades, the United Way has done a lot of good and made a lot of people happy by sprinkling dollars on worthy causes throughout the communities it serves. That approach is one of the things that attracted me to United Way as a donor many years ago: the notion that my small donation could help many different organizations and, thus, lots of people in my community.

For all of the merits of a shotgun-style funding approach, United Way leaders have come to grips with a stark reality in recent years: Community problems are growing, not receding. And as donor dollars get tighter, shotgun funding will become even less effective as a means of attacking the root problems that plague society.

Local United Way units across the country have responded by embracing a strategy called “community impact.” Fundamentally, it recognizes the capacity of United Way to be much more than a fundraising organization.

Though the United Way will continue to raise money — hopefully, lots of it — for the communities it serves, the organization can be infinitely more effective by becoming the catalyst for communitywide solutions to the big problems that hold us back.

Brian Gallagher, president of United Way of America, said it succinctly: “United Way is most powerful when we bring communities together around a set of issues or opportunities that can only be addressed collectively.”

If successful, United Way will fill an important void in this community and others: helping ensure that the right hand works in coordination with the left in getting important things done. Many charitable and non-profit organizations are at work for the betterment of Franklin and Southampton County, and many receive United Way funds. Unfortunately, they don’t always communicate well — or at all — with one another, resulting in duplication of services, unintentional conflicts and, in turn, limited effectiveness.

Major problems require a concerted effort and pooled resources. That’s where we believe the Franklin/Southampton Area United Way can be of some help. The organization is in the early stages of identifying what citizens believe to be the major issues facing this community and, more important, the United Way’s and the community’s capacity to address them.

We need your help. Chances are, if you belong to a major civic organization, you’ve already filled out a United Way questionnaire on community impact. If not, you will soon be asked to do so. A series of community meetings for the general public also is planned. Look for details in future issues of the newspaper.

The resulting data will guide United Way’s new emphasis on community impact. Stay tuned for updates along the way.