One thing I have come to depend on is the wisdom and knowledge of NPQ readers. So, when I read the following story from the Washington Post quoting the head of the United Way, I felt it was something I needed to share with you and hear from you about as well. Here’s an excerpt:
“Despite spending millions to support scores of local programs, the 121-year-old United Way has not made measurable progress on these core problems, [United Way’s president and CEO] Gallagher said. The country’s social safety net is broken, he said, and the United Way must redirect its money toward the root causes and hold itself accountable by declaring bold and measurable — even if unattainable — goals.”
I don’t mean to be a Doubting Thomas but the United Way of America’s bold new 10-year initiative aimed at cutting school dropout rates by half, reducing the number of working families struggling financially by half, and increasing the number of adults and youth that are healthy by a third, seems like an unwise and potentially fruitless swim upstream. In saying this, I must admit to a great deal of accumulated skepticism about most top-down funder initiatives.
It’s not that I do not believe that enormous social change can be accomplished if we accumulate public will and advocate politically for a more reasonably equitable social contract. And, I do want to acknowledge that Gallagher may have the right general concept about building from local efforts and knowledge to informed national policy but, 1) I think that this network’s ability to move quickly on a cohesive strategy is questionable. As I understand it, a very significant proportion of the network is not yet fully behind United Way’s last declared initiative — the community impact strategy and press reports suggested that many local United Ways knew nothing of this new “bold initiative” until they heard press reports last Thursday — that doesn’t sound like the textbook approach to engage a network; and 2) the network may be overestimating its own influence at this point, which I believe has been lately eroded.
The strength of United Way at local levels — as I have experienced it — has been in its role as gatherer and distributor of resources to strengthen local safety nets: the same role that Brian Gallagher now appears to eschew. In the best cases, there was a commitment to the funding of operating costs for mainstay organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs, the local battered women programs, Head Start, Community arts programs, community centers and foster care agencies . . . all badly needed and all expressions of community concern at the local level. I believe deeply in those kinds of organizations. I have seen them consistently turn straw to gold and improve the lives of community members in even the worst of public policy environments. For most of these types of nonprofits, operating grants are like gold because they are relatively unrestricted — covering the basic costs of keeping such operations going.
This is, in my opinion, what gives local United Ways their distinctive and hefty influence. They were often the big player in town when playing this role. When they said “jump” — nearly everyone did — for good or for bad. I’m not sure that is true now.
Unfortunately, I believe United Way of America may now be further eroding the positional power of local United Ways through serial declarations of new directions not yet anchored in the collective will of the network.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
I want to be wrong and I’d love to hear why you think I’m wrong or right.
What has been your experience with your local United Way of late? Is the community impact strategy hitting the ground in a useful or less than useful way? What does this or other past practice suggest about the United Way’s capacity to carry out this kind of initiative? Do you have worries about any unanticipated consequences of this strategy?
If you’re willing to share your response with others, please leave it here as a comment on our Web site. If you prefer to response confidentially, please write directly to me.
I have included a link to two Washington Post articles, one of which simply reports Brian Gallagher’s announcement, and a second which reflects the concerns of D.C.-based United Way affiliates.
I very much look forward to hearing from you!