United Way Changes (and Continuity…)

As I prepared to write my thoughts this month I found myself reflecting on how the work of United Way has changed and evolved in my 20 year tenure with the organization. United Ways have gone from being strictly a funder of local agencies to thinking strategically about the impact we can have on three critical areas – the education, income & health of people in our communities. Does that mean investments in agencies have gone away? No – we are still assessing local groups, convening volunteer Board members, and making informed decisions annually about the best way funds can be put to use to support our local area. What we have done differently, however, is thinking about how we might be address those needs at a level that impacts a broader audience – from providing tools and mechanisms to talk about the importance of educating young children, to hosting sessions on how to improve financial stability across age groups, to more directly connecting people to services to meet their needs through our 211 resource and referral line. To capture the heart of this vision, I could try to restate what our United Way Worldwide CEO, Brian Gallagher, has said — but I think I’ll let his words speak to the transition:

“United Way has evolved from its roots as a fundraising organization to a critical community convener that mobilizes local partners, including businesses, community leaders, public officials and community residents, to expand opportunities for people to succeed. We focus on three key building blocks: a quality education that leads to a stable job, enough income to support a family through retirement, and good health. Now all of us (local United Way chapters and stakeholders) must do what it takes to meet the goals we’ve set to advance the common good.

Of course, United Ways can’t do it alone. We must work with our community partners. Together we must tap into people’s aspirations, focus on issues and underlying conditions for change, and bring people and organizations together to create collective impact. What United Ways do well is recruit people with passion, expertise and resources to make a difference. But that’s not enough. We should aspire to drive collaborative community change. That means we – and our partners – must facilitate a shared community vision and coordinated action across a diverse coalition, along with mutual accountability, sustained effort and measured results. It means working collaboratively on communitywide and community-based strategies that can drive real change.

And it means bringing people from all walks of life together to work in meaningful ways – not just giving, but also advocating and volunteering – to advance these community strategies. We should spark new ways of working, even if we aren’t always in the forefront. Community partnerships should (work together to) plan and chart a path forward to improve education, income and health. The real work starts now, in – and with – our communities.

~ Brian A. Gallagher, President & CEO United Way Worldwide”

To that end, United Way has changed in many ways. We have thought differently over the years about how we can best do our work, giving people opportunities up and out of poverty, hopelessness or lack of direction toward a path to their best selves. On the other hand, has United Way really changed? Not at the core. We remain a strong and vital presence in local communities. We start or participate in conversations on how to lift up people who are struggling. We help to solve systemic issues, and continue to be at the table with other partners invested in the very same goal.  We challenge ourselves and others each and every day to LIVE UNITED – to work toward and embody the positive changes we want to see in the world. Changes – yep, there have been a few. But, as I see it, each one has been a step toward a better version of ourselves AND our work.

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