The United Way of Douglas County is reviewing how it doles out the dollars it receives from local donors.
For nearly five years, the local United Way board has discussed ways to improve the process of handing money out to the 24 agencies it serves, President and CEO Erika Dvorske said.
Instead of simply funding agencies, United Way is looking at a model that would place priority on programs that support several community goals, which have yet to be established. It’s a shift that United Way chapters across the country have made in recent years.
“This is the next step in an evolution for us to really impact the community,” Dvorske said. “We need to have community outcomes and be working toward those collectively.”
While the local organization says it won’t change how it allocates community contributions for another 14 months, some agencies are already worried the switch could take away the funding that allows them to keep the lights on.
Dvorske acknowledged that cuts to some local United Way agencies could occur under the new funding process.
“There is always some risk involved with change,” Dvorske said.
For 2011, United Way allocations will be done through the current system.
“United Way is very interested in not creating holes in the process of making the transition. We don’t want to be in a circumstance where someone doesn’t get served because United Way moved to community outcomes,” Dvorske said.
Concern for some agencies
Sarah Jane Crum, executive director of GaDuGi SafeCenter, applauds United Way’s willingness to evaluate its campaign strategies and fundraising efforts. But she’s concerned that funding could be slashed for agencies that respond to crisis situations. GaDuGi offers counseling to victims of sexual assault around the clock.
For agencies that are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Crum said funding is always a challenge.
“There is just a huge unknown,” Crum said of the discussions to change the funding process. “Our intent isn’t to create fear. It is our intent to be realistic about what is ahead of us. It would seem to me that the community would be very concerned and would want crisis services to be funded 24-7.”
About 13 percent of GaDuGi’s funding comes from United Way.
The Douglas County Chapter of the Red Cross couldn’t exist without United Way, Executive Director Jane Blocher said. About 28 percent of the Red Cross’ funding comes from the United Way.
“We hope that when it comes time to make those funding decisions, they realize what a valuable contribution we make to the Douglas County community,” Blocher said. “We couldn’t exist without United Way funding.”
Dvorske said the intent of the change isn’t to “pull the rug out” from United Way agencies.
At a recent meeting, Nikki King, executive director of Health Care Access clinic, cautioned the United Way to remain flexible with its funding. She said she thinks the change will lead to agencies collaborating better together and is supportive of the United Way’s changes.
A collaborative process
To prepare for the funding changes, the United Way has gathered information through surveys, focus groups and hard data. The intent is to come up with three community goals in January.
From there, nonprofit organizations will help develop strategies for reaching those goals. Come March 2012, the United Way will only fund programs that help meet those goals.
To help explain the changes to community groups, Dvorske uses the hypothetical community goal of wanting to paint more houses. With that goal established, community agencies would develop strategies to collect paint, gather volunteers to paint houses, train those volunteers to paint and identify what houses need to be painted.
“It is going to require a lot of adaptive thinking, a lot of intentional collaboration, a lot of conversation about what is the best way to get things done,” Dvorske said.
A more concrete example is the work being done at the United Way of Central Iowa. That chapter has three goals it wants to reach by 2020:
• Cut by half the number of students who do not graduate on time.
• Cut by half the number of lower-income families who are financially unstable.
• Cut by half the number of adults and youths who are engaged in unhealthy and risky behaviors.
Each of those goals comes with a list of strategies and the steps needed to accomplish them. The newest change for the organization is requiring agencies to track a set of performance measures the United Way developed, the chapter’s president, Shannon Cofield, said.
“We will be able to tell which programs are the most effective compared with one another. We can take a program to scale and invest more or we may need to right-size a program,” Cofield said.
From 2003 to 2007, the Des Moines organization saw a jump in its fundraising, going from $17.2 million to $25 million. That number slid back to $24 million during the recession.
“People have to feel like they are truly invested,” Cofield said of why fundraising increased.
Dvorske doesn’t guarantee that the changes will translate into people giving more money. But she does think that local agencies will be able to tap into shared resources.
“We believe that in this process, we can bring resources to the table that are in some cases more valuable than dollars. So, there is very much a belief that this will result in more resources being used as effectively as possible,” Dvorske said.