January 20, 2020; KSL-TV

United Way of Salt Lake (UWSL) recently revealed its policy agenda for the year, adopting a heavy focus on improving early childhood education and other educational policy improvements.

We at NPQ have been watching the steps United Way and its many independent local chapters have taken to stay alive, and the outlook hasn’t always been positive. As new ways to donate have emerged, many United Way chapters have seen donations decline, in communities ranging from the Twin Cities to Louisville.

Back in the late 1990s, UWSL had its own financial challenges, but, as the Salt Lake Tribune noted a few years ago, between 1999 and 2015, UWSL shifted “from an agency that essentially passed out money to charities into one that focuses its resources on—and expects accountability from—programs that change the lives of Utah’s low-income kids and their families through education and access to social services.” This was the approach adopted by past CEO Deborah Bayle. And while that approach risks putting the local United Way in competition with nonprofits it once directly supported, it’s a path that seemingly has worked out in Salt Lake City, and one that her successor, Bill Crim, has continued since becoming CEO in 2015.

This year, to help improve schools in their community, UWSL will commit $3 million a year to fund preschools. They will also support two Utah house bills: HB 99 and HB 114. HB 99 will increase optional extended kindergarten opportunities for students who need that extra time. HB 114 will support teachers and students in improving early learning in literacy.

As Rebecca Chavez-Houk, the UWSL’s public policy committee co-chair, explains, the group believes starting children in school early will improve their future in the long term. Research, she explains, demonstrates that a high-quality preschool experience better prepares children for kindergarten and gives them a foundation for literacy and numeracy.

United Way of Salt Lake’s 2020 policy agenda explains their new focus, but as noted above, education has formed a part of its long-term agenda for much of the past two decades. In their 2017 Form 990, UWSL states that most of their program service expenses, almost $8 million, were going toward work focused on “issues related to education, financial stability, and health as the primary drivers of self-sufficiency.” In 2015, they used social impact loans to fund a high-quality preschool program to “decrease the number of children who use special education and remedial services in kindergarten through 12th grade.” Their 2008 Form 990 states that one of their expenses was for “opening doors to educational achievement.”

According to their website, improving education in their community plays a huge part of their mission. UWSL’s vision is to have “an inclusive community where all people achieve their human potential through education, financial stability, and healthy lives.” In order to see this vision come alive, the group has fostered a range of partnerships with local school districts, state systems, communities, and community organizations.

One of the more interesting of these partnership-based approaches are the community schools UWSL has supported in ten neighborhoods. These seek to reinforce “student learning, stronger families, and healthier communities.” As NPQ has covered, community schools seek to be hubs that serve both students and their families by:

  • “Expanded learning time and opportunities: e.g., summer, weekend and after-school programs”
  • “Collaborative leadership and practice: e.g., teacher learning communities and leadership teams that link parents, students, community groups, teachers and principals”
  • “Active family and community engagement: e.g., educational programs for parents”
  • “Integrated student supports: e.g., mental and physical health services for students”

Over the years, United Way has also engaged in public policy advocacy in support of quality instruction and leadership, college access, and financial stability. Their website includes a tracker that lists other bills that have drawn their interest. On their advocacy page, UWSL says they believe “engaging in public policy advocacy is a powerful way to make a difference in people’s lives.” They also encourage others to take action by providing lobbying information on their website, as well as an Action Center where they promote the bills they currently support.

Now, to the elephant in the room: that this local United Way has turned to doing advocacy is notable at the level of role and identity. Who are this local United Way’s funder/owners, and who authorizes their community priority setting? In the past, we have seen shifts by various United Ways to choose social priorities as questionable, especially when accompanied by a reduction in funding to other areas of work. So this story is interesting not only on an individual level, but at a systems level. What is this new hybrid, and is it necessary and useful?—Melissa Neptune