Philanthropy Reborn at United Way Again? You Judge!

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November 28, 2012; Source: Forbes

Forbes presents an article that is intriguingly titled “Murder and the Reinvention of Community Philanthropy.” When you get into the guts of the article, however, its import is questionable, although we may be missing something.

In 2008, seven-year-old Hser Ner Moo, a Burmese refugee, went missing and was found brutally murdered in another refugee’s basement. This was evidently a focusing moment in the life of that community in which many stood back for a moment to take stock in the collective nonprofit responsiveness to the refugee community. It was also a moment not so unlike many others experienced elsewhere, and the response was not so very unusual either. In fact, it exhibits the kind of constant redesign of our work that the world necessitates, especially a world where demographics call us to new and richer approaches.

Apparently, things did change. The Granite School District, the Utah Food Bank, the Boy Scouts, the Bennion Center at the University of Utah, 4-H and the local United Way partnered together to open the Woodrow Wilson Community Learning Center in 2009. Today, the Center is immensely diverse and members in the community speak over twenty languages. The Center provides before-school and after-school programming along with ESL programs, yoga and women’s support groups for adults in the community. The United Way has also “coordinated” the establishment of another community learning center within the apartment project where Hser Ner Moo lived and it reportedly has an impressive list of adult education programs available for residents.

The United Way of Salt Lake was already shifting to a new model in which organizations submitted cooperative proposals instead of competing against one another for funding, and in 2010, they rehauled their whole system to make that a requirement for all proposals. This was described as reinventing the model for “community philanthropy,” an effort that started about ten years ago with pilot projects.  In 2010, The United Way of Salt Lake shifted all of their efforts to the new model and this article links that effort somehow to the murder.

As is reported here, “Under the old model, nonprofits approached United Way for grants to fund their programs. Each organization measured and defended its own results. Under this model, each agency competed with the others for money and often provided overlapping services…With the new model, agencies were required to submit cooperative proposals. The first year that they were required to submit cooperative proposals, none of the proposals were actually accepted. The United Way required the applicants to go back and work more cooperatively to address community needs.” This is the transformed new “community philanthropy” model that is now being written up in Forbes.

NPQ does not argue with the concept of creating comprehensive and cooperative services for increasingly diverse communities. In such communities, problems are and always have been interconnected and people live as people, not as a collection of problems. But we worry a bit about how much of this story is just an old set of ideas recast and rebottled. There is actually nothing wrong with an old set of good ideas but we would have liked the story better if: 1) it had not been so breathlessly promoted as a new concept; 2) there was some discussion of the community’s part in designing the response; and 3) it had not used the murder of a young woman to make its point.

At the end of this article we have Rebecca Dutson, executive director of the United Way of Salt Lake City, commenting, “Working with committed individuals and corporations to create meaningful and measureable change in communities where the need is greatest is inspiring. Together, we are literally changing the odds so every child has the same chance to succeed in school and life. It’s a privilege for me to be a part of this transformational work.” Sounds eerily familiar. –Ruth McCambridge and Aine Creedon

  • michael

    I agree this is not ‘new’, but it appears to be a smart way for the United Way to recreate itself. As traditional workplace giving dies and intermediaries are being ruthlessly dismantled by social networks, UW has to rethink purpose. As catalyst money for collaborative approaches to community issues this sems the means to stay relevant in the fundrasing community as well as have impact.

  • Douglas Gould

    Actually, I think there is a bigger story to be told about a change in approach urged by national United Way. Last I heard, they were urging a shift in focus to systems reform at the local level, not just making grants to support local charitable endeavors. This strategy called for engaging partners in business and public policy changes that would more broadly address community needs.

    Not sure if this is still “operative,” but if not, that would be interesting to know about, too.

  • Jane

    It’s been about 15 years since I worked for a United Way funded agency but I don’t remember ever collaborating across agency boundaries. The United Way collected the money and watchdogged for duplication of services and gathered us quarterly to extoll the virtues of our various organizations but that’s where it stopped. To actually have agencies working together on a common issue seems like a sea change to me.

  • Linda Duhon

    Oh —– the COMMUNITY IMPACT model that U Ways are now touting. Everytime the ‘re-invent’ themselves it seems as if they end up more powerful and dictatorial to funded/participating non-profits. It also appears that the U Ways end up using communnity funding to support its own initiatives.

    It would be lovely if some funding entity would wake up to the fact that it takes resources to participate in these community efforts and asking already struggling nonprofits to part with scarce resources to join ‘the club’ is a is just another demand to do more with less.

  • Choose Civility

    Here’s why this “new” model doesnt work: it requires non-profit staff and board members to spend countless hours applying for a ever smaller pool of available funds because inevitably United Way board and staff are channeling the largess to further support government or board pet projects. 1. Tax dollars already support that work 2. It is the UW grasping at their fleeting relevance.