Triangle United Way shifting role to catalyst

By Todd Cohen

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — In September, culminating a regional competition known as the Innovate United Challenge, a local organization or group of organizations will win $50,000, along with pro-bono consulting, to launch a collaborative program to reduce childhood hunger in the region.

Sponsored by United Way of the Greater Triangle, the competition is part of a larger effort by United Way to transform its role and impact.

Traditionally seen as an umbrella group that raises money each fall, mainly in workplace campaigns, to support partner agencies providing health and human services, United Way now is focusing on raising awareness about urgent problems related to poverty, and engaging community resources to address their symptoms and causes.

The childhood hunger competition is “indicative of a huge transformation that’s underway,” says Mack Koonce, who joined United Way as CEO two years ago after serving as chief operating officer for Philadelphia-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

With its annual fundraising campaign set to begin, United Way is working on a handful of other collaborative efforts to address basic needs and long-term solutions for low-income families and children.

Those efforts include initiatives to serve youth aging out of foster care, improve services for the region’s homeless population, and create customized volunteer opportunities in sync with employers’ business focus.

Chaired by George Habel, executive vice president at Capitol Broadcasting Co., this year’s campaign likely will try to raise more than the $14.2 million it raised last year, when it posted its first increase — 4 percent — since 2006, Koonce says.

Last year’s campaign also raised an additional $5.2 million designated by donors to be distributed to particular programs.

With the funds it raises this year, United Way also expects to invest more in community programs than the $5.8 million it invested last year. In the face of  continuing growth in demand for services, United Way last year invested 10 percent more than the previous year.

Virginia Parker, former associate director of the Wake Tech Foundation who joined United Way this year as senior vice president for resource development and strategic partnerships, says United Way’s focus now is on “year-round engagement.”

Four to six times a year, for example, United Way offers customized volunteer opportunities for each of a growing number of employers such as Nationwide, RTI, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, and Syngenta.

And rather than touting its fundraising during workplace campaigns, Parker says, United Way is “talking about our work, and engaging employees in a community conversation.”

Its work now includes the foster-youth and homelessness efforts, both supported by a Financial Stability Fund for which United Way aims to raise $1.5 million over three years. In its first year, United Way has raised roughly half its goal.

For the foster-youth initiative, five partner agencies each in Wake, Durham, Orange and Johnston counties will coordinate housing, financial-literacy, and education and job-readiness services for a total of 75 individuals ages 17 to 20 who are aging out of the foster-care system. For the Wake effort, launched this year, youth already are receiving services more quickly than in the past, Koonce says.

And for the homelessness effort, United Way and half-a-dozen partner agencies have developed a common web-based tool the agencies are testing to gather “intake” information from clients.

United Way, which operates with an annual budget of $4 million and a staff of 36 employees, supports 160 programs at 82 partners agencies, including 16 it has added through a competitive process open to nonprofits that share United Way’s priorities and can show their impact.

United Way also has reorganized its staff, particularly in the areas of resource development and marketing, “to engage the community in a different way,” Koonce says. “The way to connect donors to enthusiasm is not in the donation but in the work and having them be part of the community,” he says. “This is driving everything we do.”

A key goal for United Way is to “build a network of partners who are working collaboratively to sustain established solutions, build the promising ones, and use the Innovate Challenge to launch new solutions,” Koonce says. “There’s a huge urgency to do more.”

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