Local Autonomy; Local Culture for United Ways

Local Autonomy; Local Culture for United Ways

Last month the Star Tribune published an article about the retirement of Greater Twin Cities United Way (GTCUW) Executive Director, Sarah Caruso, after 9 years of service.  The article also discussed changes in the giving environment and adjustments GTCUW was making to address certain issues.  I took some calls from friends and donors that were concerned about what that meant for United Way of Steele County. My answer: absolutely nothing. 

United Ways are completely autonomous from each other in the ways they do their local business.  We fundraise differently from one another, we create and administer new programs differently, and the nature of our relationships with partner nonprofits are completely different.  Each United Way is expected to respond to and be accountable for local conditions -  addressing local need,  organizational governance, and the fundraising climate.  

If you look to other United Ways in our state – Mankato, Rochester, Faribault, Austin – they all operate differently in how they fight for the Income, Education, and Health in their own communities.  Some United Ways fund only Partner Agency programs with their locally raised resources and some fund only programs which address emerging community issues.  We do a hybrid of this – we fund our local Partner Agencies AND we build programs which address specific local needs.

If you read the article you learned that Greater Twin Cities United Way is assessing their fundraising model and planning to make changes.  GTCUW is a huge organization.  They have over 100 staff members and their annual budget is over $77 million.  The way they tackle the need in the 9 counties they serve is complex and fluid. The fundraising changes outlined in the article demonstrate what GTCUW is doing to meet their local conditions.  They have additional challenges based on their own governance and fundraising model – we have a different model and therefore a different outcome.  Our conditions are different. 

For example: one of our newest and most popular programs is the Preschool Transportation program. Through our annual needs assessment process, we discovered that transportation to preschool was a multi-faceted problem in our area affecting not only families experiencing poverty but working women and men, and businesses.  Our area preschools hours operate at times which conflict with most business work hours.  Many low-income families have only one car, if that.  So, if someone needs the car to get to  work, transportation for the rest of the family can be troublesome.  With this program families pay $1 per ride for trips to preschool.  Those who meet income requirements receive a “ridership” through United Way of Steele County.  Last year UWSC paid for over 3000 rides so that all children have access to the educational benefit of Preschool. 

In Steele County, this is one of the ways United Way addresses local conditions.   We uncovered the problem with community partners like Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, and Owatonna Schools.  SMART Transit wrote the State grant and runs the program.  UWSC funds the inclusion –fostering “riderships”.  For new programs addressing emerging needs, this type of public/private partnership and collaboration is vital.  It provides a warranty to success by spreading the work and the risk out among committed partners.

Regarding fundraising, United Way of Steele County constantly assesses the local fundraising process.  Ours is working.   Our business and individual support is strong. We have grown our annual campaign 3 years in a row allowing us to increase the giving to local Partner Agencies 24% since 2014.  That being said, we are always looking for ways to broaden our reach.  We wholeheartedly believe that United Way is like a public utility which should be supported by everyone at the level that makes sense for them.  We are building additional processes to reach more donors and supporters.  Steele County residents are generous and give for the right reasons - because we have neighbors in need; because we’ll be there for you when you need it. 

Kim Schaufenbuel is the Executive Director of United Way of Steele County.  She can be reached at 507-455-1180 or via email at kschaufenbuel@unitedwaysteelecounty.org.