By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Since 2008, when United Way of Forsyth County launched a program at Parkland Magnet High School designed to help more students graduate, the graduation rate at the low-income school has grown to 74.3 percent from 65.8 percent, and the graduation rate for all county high schools has grown to 80.9 percent from 70.1 percent.
The effort at Parkland, along with similar initiatives at Carver High School and North Forsyth High School that also have helped boost graduation rates at those schools, reflects a larger shift in focus at United Way.
Long known for the effectiveness of its annual effort to raise money for its partner agencies that provide health and human services, United Way has retooled itself as an organization that invests the dollars it raises in strategies that it believes, based on evidence, will fix some of the communities’ most urgent needs in the areas of financial stability, health and education.
To boost the annual campaign, which this year aims to raise just over $17.3 million, or roughly the total it raised each of the last two years, United Way is counting on engaging donors in the programs it supports and helping them understand the difference their dollars make.
“Our focus is on getting donors out to see these programs and what their dollars are doing and the value that United Way adds,” says Mamie Sutphin, vice president for resource development at United Way.
Chaired by Leslie Hayes, regional president of the Triad West Region for Wells Fargo, the campaign is counting on donors who give $1,000 or more, a group that last year contributed $8.3 million, or roughly half the total raised.
As part of that effort, BB&T this year agreed to give $100,000 a year for five years to match gifts by women who agreed to join United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council by pledging to make an initial gift of $500 and increase that gift annually until it reaches $1,000, with BB&T making up the difference between the annual gift and $1,000.
In addition to the initiative to boost the graduation rate, United Way works with partner agencies to address other education needs.
It teams with Catholic Social Services on a program designed to provide the support that teenage mothers need to stay in school, for example, and it works with the YWCA of Winston-Salem, YMCA of Northwest North Carolina and Boys & Girls Clubs of the Salvation Army on after-school programs based at schools.
In the area of financial stability, United Way has helped establish two “prosperity” centers that serve as one-stop financial shops for lower-income individuals and families.
Led by Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina, the centers offer job training, job searches, credit and budget counseling, and financial literacy training.
Since the first center was launched on Winston-Salem’s south side in mid-2008, it has helped roughly 620 people find jobs, and helped over 860 individuals and families reduce their personal debt, including 565 who now are paying their bills on time, says John Conrad, communications director at United Way.
And in the fiscal year ended June 30, United Way partnered with four local consumer credit counseling services that prevented nearly 600 foreclosures, reflecting a 96 percent success rate in preventing foreclosures.
In the area of health, United Way partners with the Community Care Clinic, which last year provided over 21,000 patient visits for medical and dental care, a huge need in a county in which 61,000 people do not have health insurance.
Med-Aid, another program of the Community Care Clinic that opened in 2008, has helped low-income people get free prescription medications valued at over $15 million from pharmaceutical companies.
Volunteer leaders at United Way set a flat goal for this year’s campaign despite caution signs from corporate leaders that even raising the same amount as last year could be tough in the current unsettled economy, Sutphin says.
But United Way volunteer leaders “say investment in our community is so invaluable,” she says, “that we have to continue our support at that level.”