Boosting kids’ reading is focus of new effort

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Early in 2016, a coalition of 31 groups in Wake County staged its third annual book drive and collected 115,000 books.

Known as WAKE Up and Read, the coalition last spring hosted literacy nights for children and parents at 10 elementary schools with the highest percentage of low-income students receiving lunch for free or at a discounted price, and at 20 nearby child-care centers whose children go on to those schools, as well as nine community centers.

The focus of the literacy nights was the importance of helping kids continue to learn during the summer to improve their reading over the summer and avoid an erosion of academic progress they make during the previous school year.

The week after the literacy nights, all the children were able to select 10 books to keep, with their parents reading one book to the children each week over the summer.

“Children who are behind get more behind and so it’s very difficult to catch up,”  says Lisa Finaldi, community engagement leader at the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.

For the next three years, the Early Childhood Foundation will be working with WAKE Up and Read and separate coalitions in Chatham, Durham, Johnston and Orange counties that aim to help improve reading proficiency among targeted low-income children so they can read at grade level by the end of third grade.

In those five counties, less than 40 percent of economically disadvantaged students were reading at grade level by the end of third grade last year, compared to nearly 58 percent of all student.

The new effort is being funded over three years with an initial investment of $700,000, including $625,000 from Triangle Community Foundation and at least $25,000 from United Way of the Greater Triangle.

Triangle Community Foundation has agreed to give $50,000 a year to each coalition in Wake, Durham, Chatham and Orange counties, and $25,000 the first year to the Early Childhood Foundation.

United Way has pledged $25,000 the first year to the Early Childhood Foundation, and will fund the Johnston County initiative, although the amount has not been determined, Finaldi says.

WAKE Up and Read is the only coalition that already has a plan for using the money.

The coalitions in Durham, Chatham and Orange counties still are developing their plans, and the Johnston County coalition still is taking shape.

In addition to schools and child-care centers, coalition partners can range from pre-kindergarten programs to faith congregations and businesses.

In Wake County, corporate partners include PNC Bank, Fidelity and Eaton Corp., which provides free warehouse space for sorting donated books.

And as part of a local coalition in Dubuque, Iowa, Finaldi says, a barbershop gives free haircuts to kids who read a book while getting the haircut.

The Early Childhood Foundation is lead agency in North Carolina for the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national effort to improve reading proficiency among low-income students by the end of third grade.

Research shows that, in addition to summer learning, improving reading proficiency depends on improving attendance at school and making sure children arrive at kindergarten with the social, emotional and developmental skills to learn, Finaldi says.

The two funders of the new Triangle initiative aim to raise more money to invest in local partnerships over the long term, she says.

“You have to have a coalition,” she says. “Schools or parents cannot solve this problem alone.”

Alliance Medical Ministry teams up for greater impact

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — When patients at its health clinic want to improve their job skills or change jobs, Alliance Medical Ministry in Raleigh refers them to StepUp Ministry Raleigh, which offers a life-skills program to job-seekers.

And when StepUp clients lack health insurance, the agency refers them to Alliance, which provides comprehensive primary medical care to working adults in Wake County who are uninsured.

“If you have access to healthy community initiatives and social supports, it will increase patients’ ability to address health issues and life issues,” says Megg Rader, president and executive director of Alliance.

To help raise awareness of their collaborative work, and generate funds to help support it, Alliance  and StepUp this fall piloted “Share the Pie,” selling 500 donated pies for Thanksgiving.

The effort, which recruited professional bakers from restaurants, caterers and bakers in Raleigh and Cary, raised $12,500 and likely will be expanded next year.

Founded in 2001 and operating with an annual  budget of $1.4 million, 17 employees and 250 active volunteers, Alliance serves about 4,000 patients. In addition to comprehensive primary care, it provides lab work donated by Rex Healthcare and medicine either at reduced cost or free.

And in partnership with at least 20 organizations, Alliance increasingly is focusing on the interconnectedness between health, wellness, jobs and poverty.

It also is working to connect patients to information and resources for healthy food, exercise, physical activity and other support services such as job training, child care and transportation to address barriers to economic stability for people in need.

Alliance is one of five agencies in Wake County that are piloting a “community-centered health home” model — one of 12 pilot programs throughout the state supported by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.

Alliance and YMCA of Triangle already have piloted the kind of program the model is looking for. Alliance now refers its patients in southast Raleigh who are identified as pre-diabetic to a diabetes-prevention program that YMCA of the Triangle piloted at the Alexander Family YMCA on Hillsborough Street and then piloted with Alliance for its patients in southeast Raleigh.

Through The Family Table, a separate but overlapping initiative supported by United Way of the Greater Triangle, Alliance is one of six partner agencies that connect clients to one another and collect data to identify support services to better serve clients.

The Food Pantry at Catholic Charities, for example, assesses the employment needs of clients, and then might refer them to StepUp or Dress for Success, partner agencies that can provide them with job-training classes or programs to develop their skills in applying for jobs.

Other partners in the pilot program, which serves 50 families in southeast Raleigh, are Child Care Services Associates and the Wake County Boys and Girls Clubs.

Generating over $1 million a year in contributions, Alliance in May 2014 launched Alliance Circle, a giving program that 30 women have joined by agreeing to give $100 a month for two years, or a total of $2,400 each, enough to support the health of three women at Alliance.

Alliance also generates income from two events it hosts in alternate years — a “Farm to Table” dinner that raised $125,000 this past spring, and “In Her Shoes,” a women’s leadership luncheon that will be held next spring and focuses on women’s health and overcoming barriers to women’s health.

“All these organizations that are serving vulnerable populations have so much crossover,” Rader says. “We work on health, but unless we connect health to all these other issues people are facing, we’re really not going to move forward.”

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.”

Community solutions to homelessness urged

By Todd Cohen

[Note: I am working with Triangle Community Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — While homelessness can seem beyond any solution, efforts to reduce it are working.

Actually ending homelessness, however, will take truly collaborative community efforts that require patience and hard work, and are well designed, driven by incentives and shared goals, and tracked with useful metrics that show the impact of those efforts.

That was the message of four experts who work on homelessness issues and served on a panel at the April meeting of the Triangle Donors Forum.

Hosted by Triangle Community Foundation and United Way of the Greater Triangle at United Way’s offices in Morrisville, the Forum offered a window into local efforts to fight homelessness by adapting to changes in the funding environment and in perspectives about the causes of the problem and effective strategies to address it.

Roots of homelessness

Characterizing homelessness as “one of the most complex societal problems,” Denise Neunaber, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum the keys to ending the problem all are rooted in access — to affordable housing, to services and to income.

In the early 1980s, she said, homelessness was treated as an “emergency situation”  and a problem that eventually would “go away.”

Declines in the development of affordable housing and in wages, however, along with changes in the mental health system and other social forces, have resulted in the spread of homelessness, she said.

Yet the system created to fight homelessness, rooted in the belief it was a temporary crisis, has “taken on a life of its own,” she said.

Shifting strategies

The system that emerged to serve homeless people operated below the “safety net” to “catch people when the safety net doesn’t work,” Neunaber said.

But that system became a kind of “sticky net.”

“We created a system where you need to get services while you’re there,” she said, creating few exits for people in temporary housing who needed ongoing assistance.

But that system should be a “trampoline,” she said, to stabilize their housing while they get other support, including assistance with rent and in securing jobs or disability benefits, or services such as mental health programs or case management.

“People fall out of housing into our system and we try to bounce them back into housing and services,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, getting people out of homelessness requires permanent housing.

“Instead of investing just in services and a temporary place for individuals and families to stay,” she said, “we’re taking it to the next level, investing in housing, in rental assistance and security deposits, to see how quickly we can get people out of the system.”

Homelessness and poverty

Perceptions about what it means to be homeless also have changed, Neunaber said.

For many years, advocates equated fighting homelessness with fighting poverty, believing they had to address the poverty of homeless individuals and families by helping them “get better jobs and make better decisions, ” she said, “and make them better people.”

But over the years, advocates have recognized that “maybe ending homelessness is not the same as ending poverty,” she said. “Maybe ending homelessness is a piece of getting to the next step of ending poverty. We may not be able to end poverty for these individuals and families, but I know we can end  homelessness.”

Neunaber said local partnerships to end homelessness had helped reduce the number of chronically homeless individuals and families in communities across North Carolina, including a declines of 35 percent in Durham, 58 percent in Winston-Salem and and 82 percent in Buncombe County.

‘Rapid Rehousing’

Strategies for serving the homeless more recently have evolved to a “Housing First” model that includes a “Rapid Rehousing” approach focusing on first getting homeless people housed and then providing the services they need to get back on their feet and build stable lives.

“It shortens the time they’re homeless,” Terry Allebaugh, executive director of Housing for New Hope in Durham, told the Donors Forum.

Beth Bordeaux, executive director of PLM Families Together in Raleigh, told the Donors Forum that the Rapid Rehousing strategy also provides an incentive for families not to prolong their stays in emergency housing but rather to begin to prepare themselves to move into longer-term housing.

“First we get them stable,” she said. “If your life is in chaos, the first thing you want is to reduce your stress.”

Allebaugh and Bordeaux both said Rapid Rehousing has helped their agencies house more people for less money.

Last year, for example, PLM Families Together moved 57 families into permanent housing, and this year expects to move 70 families into permanent housing.

And in partnership with three core agencies that provide support services and temporary housing , Housing for New Hope housed 173 households in permanent housing over the two-and-a-half-year period ended August 2012, with 89 percent of those households remaining housed.

Community solutions

Advocates at the Donors Forum said the most effective approaches to fighting homelessness involve community-based partnerships that address the problem from the perspective of the systems that serve homeless people.

Those systems range from job-training and financial-literacy services to those serving people with mental illness or substance abuse problems, or both, and people after they are discharged from military service or prison.

“You can’t end homelessness in a silo,” Bordeaux said.

Bernadette Pelissier, a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, told the Donors Forum that homelessness is a byproduct of national policies on a range of issues such as poverty and mental health, and that efforts to address homelessness are supported by multiple funding streams.

So partnerships to fight homelessness should approach the problem from a “systems” perspective.

In Orange County, she said, that approach has produced promising partnerships.

The local Partnership to End Homelessness, for example, has enlisted partners such as an assistant district attorney whose efforts helped establish a local “outreach court.”

That court, which has engaged students at the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, along with other partners, encouraged homeless people who have been arrested for misdemeanors to take advantage of local services, particularly mental health services.

And a local jobs program works to encourage local businesses to hire people released from prison who may be at risk of homelessness. That effort represents a collaboration between local partners such as the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and Chamber of Commerce, and is administered by a new nonprofit led by students at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“We’re engaging the community,” Pelissier said, “not just providers” of services.

Critical to local collaborative programs, she said, is the ability to track and measure their impact.

Focus on collaboration

The session underscored the growing focus of Triangle Community Foundation and United Way to work more collaboratively to address urgent needs in the region.

“We have to do it together, think collaboratively,” Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation, told the Donors Forum. “We don’t have to be the experts. We look for resources and partners.”

Mack Koonce, president and CEO of United Way, told the Donors Forum that collaborative thinking “is important to all our social issues.”

United Way, he said, is “going to work closely with other foundations and individuals to work collaboratively on the donor side and on the service delivery side.”

He said United Way plans to raise “designated dollars to do the next systemic change” in the area of financial stability for families, an effort he said would “keep this going” through “collaboration, the use of data, and scaling what works.”

New CEO says impact key at Triangle United Way

By Todd Cohen

MORRISVILLE, N.C — When Mack Koonce worked as its chief operating officer, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America shifted the focus of its brand from the mentoring programs it provides to the impact they have “keeping children on the path to educational success and reducing juvenile delinquency.”

Key to that shift was finding ways to measure that impact and help donors and other investors understand it, he says.

United Way of the Greater Triangle faces a similar challenge in trying to shift the focus of its brand from the dollars it raises to the impact those dollars have in addressing urgent community needs, a shift that will require engaging donors and helping them see that impact, says Koonce, who joined United Way last month as CEO.

“That is the bottom line for this business,” he says, “not what we do, but what do we achieve, not how do we spend the money, but what do we accomplish with it.”

A native of Raeford who received an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master’s degree in business administration from UNC-Chapel Hill, Koonce worked in the corporate world for 30 years in California, New York and Texas before moving to the nonprofit sector and his job at Philadelphia-based Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

After jobs in finance and planning at Texfi Industries and American Airlines, he held sales, marketing and general management jobs at American Express, and then served as executive vice president for sales and marketing at Wyndham Hotels, where he was an equity partner.

When the company went public and was sold in 2002, he joined Big Brothers Big Sisters, commuting to Philadelphia from Chapel Hill, where he and his wife have lived since 2003.

Like United Way Worldwide, Big Brothers Big Sisters is a federation of affiliates, with the national organization providing the overall brand, advocacy, marketing and support for affiliates.

Big Brothers Big Sisters, which includes 350 affiliates, operates with an annual budget of $270 million, including $35 million for the national office.

Koonce says United Way of the Greater Triangle is “uniquely positioned to mobilize resources, both volunteers and philanthropy, to address local communities’ social issues.”

United Way, which kicked off its annual fundraising campaign last month, will be looking at how to make a bigger impact on addressing the priority needs of financial stability, education and health, he says.

United Way, which did not set a goal last year but raised $16.5 million, also did not set a goal this year but aims to raise roughly the the total it raised last year.

“There’s a lot of competition in raising money, so you have to make your case, establish your relevance,” he says. “For this organization, and for nonprofits in general, the idea of measuring your impact and knowing the outcomes of the resources you’re investing is not easy.”

It also will be important to determine how broad or narrow an agenda United Way can take on, as well as the scale of the resources and people it can mobilize, he says.

A critical goal will be to “engage business leaders, community leaders, nonprofit leaders in a vision of what we can do together,” he says.

That will be an ongoing process, as will “convening the different sectors and working collaboratively on these issues,” he says. “There’s an important role that’s about community leadership and is bigger than just the funds you raise and the volunteers who you help mobilize.”

In the first half of 2013, United Way will launch a community-wide effort to develop a vision and new strategic plan to help United Way make a greater impact.

“It’s what donors are demanding of nonprofits, accountability for not just how you spend the money but what do you accomplish,” he says. “It’s market forces that are driving these changes, and I’m going to help accelerate that.”

Triangle United Way targets poverty

By Todd Cohen

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — Since 2007, the year before the economy crashed, the number of residents in the Triangle who live on low-incomes or in poverty has grown by 25 percent, a rate of growth that mirrors that of the population of low-income and poor people in the United States.

Yet during the same five-year period, donations to United Way of the Greater Triangle and to its 77 partner agencies have declined.

“This is a burden the nonprofit sector cannot continue to bear,” says Jim Green, senior vice president for resource development at United Way. “We’re not maximizing in this community the total potential for philanthropy.”

As it kicks off its annual fundraising campaign today, United Way is focusing on a year-round effort to do a better job telling the story of people in need in the four counties it serves, and the role its partner agencies play in addressing those needs.

Chaired by Rick McNeel, chairman, president and CEO of Lord Corp., the campaign will focus on getting more people to give through workplace campaigns, which account for the bulk of donations but historically have not mustered more than 20 percent of employees at participating companies.

It also will focus on generating more contributions from people who give $1,200 or more, a group that accounts for about one-fourth of the annual campaign.

Last year’s campaign raised $16.5 million, down from $17.4 million in 2010, with donors last year giving $8.65 million of the total to United Way’s general Community Care Fund, one the remaining dollars designated to other agencies, one-fourth of them United Way partner agencies.

United Way did not set a goal last year and did not set a public goal this year but aims to raise roughly the total it raised last year.

“Through surveys, we find our donors are not motivated by a big overall goal,” Green says. “The things that motivate them are the stories, the agencies and the people being helped, and the impact being done with their donations.”

Telling those stories are critical, he says.

“We are really here to help low-income individuals and people in poverty,” he says, a group that includes “new entrants”  who were not in such dire straits before the economy collapsed four years ago.

“These are people who were working, they were getting by, maybe they were on the edges, they were surviving, but now they are not, they definitely need help,” Green says.

It is United Way and its partner agencies, he says, “who are caring for these folks, making sure they have food on the table, that they can afford housing, that they’re getting job skills and training, that they have access to better money-management skills to help them try to get by.”

While workplace campaigns will continue to generate most of the dollars contributed through United Way, it also has been expanding its use of social media and blogging to reach and engage new generations of donors, and to tell its story, Green says.

United Way has built its Facebook following to nearly 700 fans since launching its Facebook page in late 2008, with its Twitter following growing to over 1,500 since it began Tweeting in 2009.

“Our community has to  come together to figure out what we’re going to do,” he says. “We can’t continue to operate the way we have been as a nonprofit community and as a community as a whole. There are too many people falling through the cracks.”

Triangle United Way taps new CEO

MORRISVILLE, N.C. — Mack Koonce, former chief operating officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, has been named CEO of United Way of the Greater Triangle.

Koonce, who begins his new job Sept. 4, succeeds Craig Chancellor, who is retiring after 37 years as a United Way professional and after 10 years as CEO of United Way of the Greater Triangle.

Koonce, a North Carolina native who lives in Chapel Hill, formerly was executive vice president of sales and marketing at Wyndham Hotels.

In Chancellor’s 10 years as CEO, United Way of the Greater Triangle has raised over $170 million for agencies and programs in the region.

Todd Cohen