United Way aims for ‘collective impact’

By Todd Cohen

CARY, N.C. — From 2004 to 2014, when Laura Zink Marx served as executive director of NJ 2-1-1 Partnership, a subsidiary of United Way of New Jersey, the referral-and-resource hotline for health and human services grew rapidly to serve United Way affiliates, the nonprofit agencies they support, and government agencies in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The Partnership also emerged as a model for the new role United Way increasingly aims to play in local communities as a catalyst, hub and resource for collaboration to address urgent community needs. It used technology and data to coordinate services among agencies, assess callers’ needs and connect them with services to assist them, and began to track the impact of those services.

And it served as a revenue center, growing its staff to 100 employees and its annual operating budget to $5 million.

Now, as president and CEO of United Way of North Carolina, Marx is building on that model to help its members reinvent the way they do business. Those members include 57 local United Ways and two United Funds that serve 83 of the state’s 100 counties and last year raised a total of $100 million.

“Like any business, we’re reimagining what the future holds for us a state organization, and local United Ways are reimagining their role in the communities,” says Marx, who joined the statewide organization last October. “We’re making the shift from allocating dollars to agencies, to building community impact programs that are more inclusive of collaboration with other agencies and making real change happen.”

Operating with nine employees and an annual budget of $900,000, United Way of North Carolina also manages the State Employees Combined Campaign, which in 2014 raised $3.8 million.

Under a separate nonprofit operating with an annual budget of $1 million, up from $400,000 last year, United Way of North Carolina administers the 2-1-1 hotline, which serves all 100 counties in the state through call centers in Asheville and Durham that employ the equivalent of 21 full-time staff.

With $1.7 million in funding from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill, United Way is expanding its 2-1-1 service to Florida, Kentucky and New York, and has developed 211counts.org, a web-based “dashboard” that tracks data from calls and will be used in North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Michigan and New York.

Building on the 2-1-1 program Marx headed in New Jersey, United Way of North Carolina also is working to develop partnerships with nonprofit and government agencies that provide health and human services, offering its 2-1-1 service as a “portal” to help those agencies to better serve their clients.

“It’s about providing solutions to the state to help streamline services for residents,” she says. “We’re providing the core infrastructure, and then leveraging that for solutions for government and nonprofits.”

United Way, for example, is partnering with the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, which under a federal mandate tied to funding is developing plans to coordinate resources for people facing homelessness.

Through an initiative to be piloted in Onslow County, United Way’s 2-1-1 service will serve as a one-stop shop aggregating data about all public and private agencies serving people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and as a “front door for coordinated assessments” of callers, Marx says.

The system will provide “pre-screening to help divert people who are not homeless,” Marx says, while directing them to resources they do need, such as food pantries.

The 2-1-1 service represents a new model for United Way, moving away from a focus on fundraising to investing in “collective impact,” Marx says.

“It’s about knowing what the factors are in a community that provide barriers to people, to help them take the next step in their lives and move forward,” she says. “If we’re looking at building coalitions and collaborations in the community, and effective long-term change, we can start to collect data that’s specific to United Way initiatives.”

United Way of Forsyth County, for example, is part of a collaborative, neighborhood-based initiative that has helped improve the high-school graduation rate and now aims to help graduates get to college and move beyond the poverty their families have faced for generations, Marx says.

The 2-1-1 service can contribute to the effort by guiding callers — such as mothers who make repeated requests for emergency assistance to pay their electric utility bills — to other services they might need to help their families become more financially independent.

In addition to 2-1-1, keys to United Way’s emerging strategy are to use technology more effectively, share “best practices” and success stories at individual United Ways, shift the perception of United Way’s work to “investing” from fundraising, and advocate for public policies that strengthen charities.

To better engage young adults, United Way needs to find ways to more effectively use YouTube videos and social media, Marx says.

United Way of Alamance County, for example, used MobileCause, a cloud-based fundraising application that lets people in the same room use their cell phones to pledge contributions so each person can instantly see total giving from everyone in the room. United Way of North Carolina then shared that “best practice” with its members throughout the state.

For smaller United Ways, Marx says, “it’s really hard to understand how it relates to what you do.” A goal of United Way of North Carolina is to “interpret big ideas and make them manageable, whatever size you are,” she says.

While United Ways traditionally have been successful at “being independent and siloed,” she says, shifting patterns in where people live and work, and how they commute, have made it important for local United Ways to share information and resources with one another, and to help people understand the common and connected role they play.

In western North Carolina, a handful of local United Ways now plan to share back-office operations such as processing donation pledges and handling payroll and other finance functions.

And United Way of North Carolina is sharing with its members the story of United Way of Onslow County, which reduced the county’s rate of childhood homelessness by more than 25 percent in two years.

United Ways also are looking for ways to engage donors in the work their dollars support so they can see the difference their investment makes.

As a “leadership” donor who gives $1,000 a year through payroll deduction to United Way of the Greater Triangle, Marx is invited to monthly events that feature discussions on topics such as the need for food for hungry people or for the mentoring of girls. She then can get involved by participating in an event to build food kits or by serving as a mentor.

And in the face of a proposal in the North Carolina Senate to cap charitable deductions, United Way of North Carolina is working to mobilize local United Ways to share their concerns about the possible impact the proposal would have on charitable giving.

United Way’s strategy is to keep looking for new ways to be part of collaborative efforts to address community needs, Marx says.

“The door’s open until it’s closed,” she says. “Let’s keep thinking about ways we can bring value to the work that we do.”

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