United Way of Allen County is changing the way it prioritizes its funding, a move that could potentially change the financial landscape for nonprofits in the region.
At the end of June, the agency announced that it had changed its strategic focus, allocating this year’s donations to agencies working in four categories of “core community needs”: educational opportunities, food security, housing stability and access to mental health.
An 18-member task force used data from independent community surveys and consulted with local leaders and residents in 32 meetings called Community Conversations before reaching a decision. The process took more than two years.
“In the past, United Way has been an organization that has told the community what our priorities are,” the organization said in a press release. “The goal of this strategic planning process was to listen to the people of our community…and end up with a distilled and clear course with the needs of community members at the forefront.
Some local nonprofit leaders are unsure how their organizations might be affected.
“It’s a big change, for sure,” said Stacey Stumpf, director of development and marketing for Cancer Services of Northeast Indiana, Fort Wayne, a former recipient of United Way funding. .
Greg Johnson, acting CEO of United Way, said the agency is not giving up on its support for groups working with so-called ALICE residents. ALICE stands for Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. The population is commonly referred to as the working poor. In Indiana, about 1 in 4 residents fit the acronym.
But Johnson said he is confident the list of organizations funded by United Way will change and some may not be funded.
“I don’t know who or how exactly. But I know it will happen,” he said. “They may decide that what we do may no longer be what they do.”
Stumpf said cancer wards could feel the pinch. Previously, United Way funds were used to purchase items that cancer patients might suddenly need, such as wheelchairs and walkers, she said. Cancer Services maintains an equipment loan bank to assist these patients.
It doesn’t seem to align with United Way’s new priorities, Stumpf said.
“We are long-time United Way partners,” she said. Cancer services provide education and mental health help, she added, but the new categories are somewhat overstated. “It seems like the areas they’re trying to focus on are areas we’re not usually engaged in.”
Cancer services have received about $12,000 a year from United Way for the past three years, Stumpf said. The group, which is not part of the American Cancer Society, depends entirely on donations from foundations and individuals, she said.
As the nonprofit faces an increase in people seeking help, “we know we’re going to have to work a little harder to get donations,” Stumpf said.
Joe Jordan, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Fort Wayne, said United Way’s change in focus is refreshing. But he didn’t know how his organization would be affected.
“I’m glad they’re looking at the allocation process. I think they should do it regularly because things are constantly changing,” he said. “We have a lot of new nonprofits starting up in addition to those that have been around for years, and I would like (funding) to be fair and equitable for them.”
United Way contributes about $50,000 a year to the Boys & Girls Club’s $3.8 million budget, Jordan said. One program, Project Learn, is focused on education, offering homework help and tutoring to underserved students from kindergarten through high school, so he thinks it would fit the funding categories. But he was not sure if the level of funding would stay the same.
The Rev. Roger Reece, executive pastor of Associated Churches of Fort Wayne and Allen County, another United Way agency, supports the new approach.
“I think it’s a good thing that United Way is targeting their areas of need,” he said, adding that he was impressed with the process used to determine them. “I think targeted impact is a good thing, and I think the Associated Churches are part of that as well.”
Associated Churches operates a neighborhood food bank program and has sponsored a program to match churches with neighborhood school students.
Not only is the way recipients are funded changing. The same goes for how donors can designate contributions. Previously, donors could designate specific agencies where they wanted their money to go, but this option will disappear in the next campaign.
“We will no longer have designated agencies. We will have (concentration) areas as designations,” Johnson said. This means that a donor will not be able to send their contribution to The Rescue Mission, for example. But the donor could request that the donation go to the Housing Stability shelter.
Johnson added “it’s hard to say” how the new approach might affect the dollar amount donated to United Way. But he acknowledged that in recent years United Way has struggled somewhat in that there are fewer people working in big business and unions who have been the usual donors.
People are also increasingly donating to causes they find online, he said. And, recently, the coronavirus pandemic has affected donations due to lower revenues.
The shift to targeted giving isn’t unique to the local United Way – it’s being emphasized across the organization nationally.
United Way of Allen County has raised about $3 million a year in recent years and about 7,000 to 10,000 people have contributed, Johnson said. United Way funded approximately 45 agencies.
“We want people to understand that United Way cannot solve all the problems in our areas (of concentration). We’re not going to solve homelessness or access to mental health,” Johnson said. “Our goal is to move the needle in a positive way…and make an impact.”