The United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area, a major source of funding for regional nonprofit agencies, is changing the way it distributes money in hopes of finding new ways to fix community problems.
But it’s a move that could leave some agencies without the charity’s monetary support.
The local United Way has accepted proposals from nonprofit agencies on how to address specific community issues determined by the charity and will distribute contributions made by local residents according to those needs.
“This year we adopted three priority areas: School readiness, self-sufficiency and community health. And our direct services funding, grants and volunteer efforts will fall in those three areas,” said Cathy Train, United Way president. “We set up impact teams with our United Way board members and staff and volunteers and they met with agencies, looked at issues and adopted the priorities for service within those areas.”
Total funding amounts and which projects are going to be in place have not been determined, Train said.
In 1990, the charity, which is managed locally, changed its funding structure from granting money to select nonprofit agencies to granting money to specific programs after a review. That method remained in place until this year.
In the new procedure, community needs to be addressed are determined by United Way officials, and requests for proposals are then sent to agencies for offers on how to meet those goals. The proposal requests were sent in February and agencies were asked for formal proposals in March.
“Before, we would contract with an agency and provide them funding for the programs that we thought addressed a need,” Train said. “The difference is now we are saying that these are our priorities and asking the agencies to give us a proposal on how they would go about meeting those needs.”
Train said the United Way sought proposals from agencies on programs to address the particular issues. Some agencies submitted multiple proposals and many joined forces with like-minded agencies to make a proposal. Not all of the proposals will be funded, however.
“It makes it difficult to say who is and who isn’t going to receive funding,” Train said. “It’s no longer about a nonprofit organization’s mission and what programs are meeting those missions. It’s about providing programs that will address the issues we see as being the most important.”
Some agencies, such as the local chapter of the American Red Cross, which has received as much as $19,000 annually from the local United Way in the past, will see that money disappear.
Keila Rader, executive director of the local chapter, said her organization was notified in April that it would not receive funds.
“We’ve had a long-standing history of being part of the United Way and now we don’t have that relationship,” Rader said. “The contribution is a relatively small portion of our overall budget, but it meant that we were part of a partnership with an important part of the community.”
Rader said the Red Cross submitted a proposal under the United Way’s goal of providing for self-sufficiency for Central Virginians. The proposal sought funding to help cover the costs of providing shelter, food and clothing for persons and families displaced by fire and disaster.
“The Red Cross is the organization that is there to make sure they have a place to stay at night when their home is gone, clothes to wear when they have none and to make sure they can go back to work and school,” Rader said. “We think that fits well with the ideal of keeping people self-sufficient. They disagreed.”
“The Red Cross did submit a proposal but it didn’t address the issues we are trying to address,” Train said. “They provide a needed service and are a great benefit to the community. There’s no doubt about that, but that’s not how we are basing the funding.”
“Everyone is trying to do good. Every one of the nonprofits in the community — and we have more than 600 of them — has an expertise and a population it’s trying to help,” said Kim Connolly, vice president of marketing and communications for the United Way-Thomas Jefferson Area. “What we’re focusing on is whether we are really addressing the problems. Are we really having an impact?”
Last week, the United Way notified the agencies with programs that were approved for funding. The amount of funding, service parameters and other issues are still being negotiated, and United Way officials will announce final program funding later this month.
“We have sent letters to agencies letting them know what our funding levels are and asking them to review their proposals to see if that will work,” Train said. “There may be some changes in proposals we look at before final approval.”
Although the three areas of community funding focus are broad, the charity’s review teams provided agencies with some specific aspects they want addressed.
In efforts to improve education, United Way teams asked agencies for proposals on providing home-visiting services for families with children 3 and younger; programs to increase access to high-quality early education through a statewide daycare/preschool program; and other proposals that “partner with schools, preschools and community groups” to help preschoolers transition into kindergarten.
To improve self-sufficiency among Central Virginians, the charity sought proposals to lower employment barriers; improve job training for unemployed and under-employed residents; and promote high school graduation and post-secondary success. The charity also sought programs increasing access to financial education, literacy and budgeting and supporting employment through accessible transportation, child care and shelter.
The charity sought proposals that would improve prenatal care and infant health; education, mentoring, patient engagement and support programs to improve health outcomes; promotion of physical activity and improved eating habits to stave off or reduce obesity; as well as increasing access to preventative and basic health care resources.
“The focus areas come from U.S. Census data, what we’ve heard from providers and social services and educators who said, ‘this is what we see.’ This is what they thought was important,” Train said.
The proposals would be funded for up to three years, and joint efforts between nonprofits and social services agencies were encouraged, according to United Way grant guidelines provided to the nonprofit agencies. Specific, measurable goals and outcomes, plus a plan to measure them, were required. The guidelines also sought best practices and research-based program models.
“You can distribute your resources on a variety of programs you think are helpful or you can target your resources to address specific needs and really make a difference,” Connolly said. “We’re really focusing on issues where we think our resources can help the most.”
For the Red Cross and others, the potential loss of United Way funds means a refocused effort on fundraising to make up the shortages.
“We’ve greatly appreciated what the United Way has done for us and we appreciate what they do. We are very grateful to the community that has supported us through donations to the United Way, because the United Way money comes directly from the community,” Rader said. “The economy is still pretty rough and we will need to focus on the companies and community people who have supported us in the past and look for new ways to raise money.”
“There’s no doubt that the [United Way] priorities won’t fit with every organization we funded in the past, even though those organizations are doing important work in the community,” Train said. “We’re not saying those services aren’t worthy. We’re saying we can’t do everything and we should put our emphasis where it can do the most good.”