The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 24, 2017 1:00 am

United Way to refocus its money

Beginning in '19, agencies must target specific needs

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

United Way of Allen County excels at studying data, identifying problems and crafting solutions, according to the nonprofit's president and CEO.

David Nicole said that well-worn process omits a significant step, however.

“You notice that nowhere in there is talking to the people who are facing the problem,” he said.

The organization addressed that flaw last year by convening community conversations that gathered local input on what residents' ideal community looks like. Answers from more than 500 participants factored into a course correction for local United Way leaders, Nicole said.

Starting with the next three-year funding cycle, which begins July 1, 2019, the nonprofit will concentrate its support on programs and agencies that help working families who are struggling to make ends meet. United Way's current challenge is deciding how to measure grant applicants' effectiveness in addressing its new focus.

Removing barriers

About 40 percent of local families routinely face heartbreaking decisions, including whether to spend limited cash on food or medicine, Nicole said.

Local United Way leaders realized they needed to solicit input from the 200-plus agencies they work with to effectively meet struggling residents' needs.

Northeast Indiana Positive Resource Connection is a United Way grant recipient, receiving $23,000 this year – or about 2 percent of its $1.2 million annual budget. The local nonprofit supports people who test positive for HIV, those at risk of contracting the disease and family members.

“I think United Way has been transparent about what their mission is, and we've participated in those conversations,” said Jeff Markley, executive director.

Tiffany Bailey, vice president of community impact for United Way, outlined some common themes. Providers believe the community needs better access to:

• Comprehensive lists of available resources.

• Public transportation for jobs and after-school programs.

• Life skills training for teens.

• Health care, including language translation services.

• Mental health care, including addiction programs.

• Affordable, quality child care.

That last item, lack of quality child care, keeps some women from working, Bailey said.

Less obvious case

United Way's board is deciding how to ensure its resources are distributed to providers that target those specific needs.

The funding process requires agencies to apply for grants. The application asks for proof that the provider's existing programs achieve desired results.

For example, if the program's goal is to improve reading ability for first-, second- and third-graders, how effective is it? Are the young readers tested both before and after participating in the program?

Agencies that receive funding will be asked for feedback on the new metrics, Nicole said.

“We want to make sure we're all in agreement as a community of service organizations how we're going to measure ourselves and know whether we are really moving the needle on a community issue,” he said.

Some local nonprofits focus on low-income families, making it likely they would meet the new requirements and continue to receive United Way funding. They include Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northeast Indiana, Boys & Girls Club of Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne Urban League, The Literacy Alliance and The Rescue Mission.

Brightpoint, formerly CANI, is another example. Its mission is helping “communities, families and individuals remove the causes and conditions of poverty.”

Other current grant recipients might have a less obvious case to make. But at least three believe they have a good shot because many of the people they serve are low-income.

Northeast Indiana Positive Resource Connection is among them. The nonprofit helps people who can't afford HIV medication or need rides to doctor appointments.

United Way funds help the agency pay for client health care coordination and language translation, Markley said. And if they lost that grant in the next funding round?

“We would feel it,” he said, “but it wouldn't shut our doors.”

Looking for answers

Mike Mushett, CEO of Turnstone Center for Children and Adults with Disabilities, said his organization is in a similar situation.

“I am aware of the revised focus,” he said. “I think we, as an agency, are going to see how it plays out.”

Turnstone's $173,990 annual grant from United Way accounts for about 3.5 percent of its annual budget of $5 million.

“United Way dollars are very important to us,” Mushett said, adding that a significant number of people the agency serves are low-income. “We never turn anyone away for inability to pay.”

Even those families with middle-class incomes might struggle to pay for all the services a child with disabilities needs, he said.

Cindy Schaefer, director of operations for Erin's House for Grieving Children, said about 60 percent of its clientele is low-income.

The nonprofit received $10,000 from United Way this year, or 1.5 percent of its $650,000 annual budget.

Decisions for the next funding cycle won't be announced until about May 2019. Nicole believes nonprofits' leaders will get a good idea whether they will qualify after application criteria is announced next spring.

Mushett is aware United Way grants don't come with renewal guarantees. Asked to consider whether 12 months would be sufficient lead time if Turnstone were declined funding, he considered the possibility.

“I don't know if it's enough time, but it certainly gives us a significant amount of time ... to adjust,” he said.

Nicole's goal is for United Way leaders to coordinate with local organizations, including nonprofits, to help local families achieve financial stability.

“We don't have all the answers. We know that,” he said. “One organization cannot fix this.”

At a glance

Four themes emerged when United Way of Allen County officials asked more than 500 people about their ideal community.

Residents want:

• Safe neighborhoods

• Access to public transportation

• Resources that support a healthy lifestyle

• A sense of community

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