Collaboration is key in new United Way grants

Author: Joe Dits, South Bend Tribune

Collaboration is key in new United Way grants
Grants makeover offers three-year funding

South Bend

The Center for the Homeless and Hope Ministries will join forces this year on a new program where they’ll educate school employees, ambulance and emergency crews and others so they better understand trauma — like homelessness, abuse, neglect and domestic violence — and how it keeps people from making use of the help they need.

The program, called Building Trust, has garnered $270,000 per year from the United Way of St. Joseph County over the next three years. Several other agencies will help.

It marks some of the key changes in how the United Way is financing charitable efforts to fight poverty.

Gone are the one-year “allocations,” the old way of distributing money that came through fundraising campaigns. Now most recipients get three-year grants that started to roll out with the new fiscal year on Friday. United Way officials told the charities last year that they’d start with a “clean slate” — that the 40 volunteers who reviewed their applications wouldn’t consider what the programs had received in the past.

The United Way opened the grants up to any charity in the county and pushed them to collaborate, ensuring them a better shot at dollars if they did. Out of 45 programs that are receiving dollars, 18 have pledged to collaborate with other organizations. That’s in addition to eight initiatives that the United Way itself coordinates, all of which have multiple partners.

The idea, President and CEO Matt Harrington said, is to make better use of collective resources. He said programs fared better if they focused on the root causes of poverty — honing in on the United Way’s overall goal of erasing poverty — and if their efforts can be replicated elsewhere in the community.

That, Harrington said, gives the United Way a clearer, more measurable way of telling the community what it’s accomplishing. He said donors, particularly company executives, agree with the collaborative approach, having told him “it’s about time to get nonprofits to work together for the common good.”

As for the charities, “The process has been as transparent as possible, and I think they appreciate that,” said Sheri Niekamp, director of community impact.

Several programs that were financed last year did manage to win dollars under the new system. Some programs didn’t.

One of the collaborations is at the Early Childhood Coalition of St. Joseph County, where the United Way will spend $30,000 per year for the next two years so that, for the first time in its 2.5-year history, the coalition will have a paid staff member: a coordinator. Emily Rupchock, who started in that role in a temporary contract in March, said this will give the group more focus and leadership as its four work groups meet monthly to seek ways to improve child care and families’ awareness.

She also supervises early childhood programs at the Center for the Homeless, and she’s one of the 50 or so members of the coalition that include elected officials, business leaders, data experts and a lot of people who work in child care. The United Way was a founding member.

The Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative of St. Joseph has won $30,000 per year for the next two years to launch “investigative teams” to identify and seek solutions to local barriers that the poor face. LeRoy King, who started as Bridges’ director in March, said the program aims to eventually change community services, like improving access to transportation or medical care or any number of other results.

At first, it sounds just like the work that Bridges has already been doing: Bring people with resources — be it money, expertise, influence or skills — to sit and chat with people lacking resources. Get them to talk about the barriers that the poor run into and how to solve them. But that has all been very individualized, King said. The key difference with the investigative teams, King said, is that it would seek broader changes in the community.

“We’re not sure what may emerge,” he said.

King said Bridges sought a total of $600,000 from United Way over the next three years — far more than most programs typically receive — to pay for an extra full-time and part-time employee, along with stipends for participants, technology and other expenses in facilitating 160 people on the teams.

“We encouraged them to start small and perfect it," Harrington said of the $30,000-per-year grant. "Then they could scale it up and grow it from there.”

King said Bridges is now looking at doing just that, although more money still needs to be raised so that it can start up this fall. He noted that Bridges is also receiving all of the United Way aid it sought for two other programs.

United Way grants

• Total requested: $7.4 million over three years

• Total grants awarded: $2.28 million over three years

• Total for United Way’s eight initiatives: $1.4 million for one year

• Percent of donations used for administration, fundraising and marketing: 18.4 percent

• Descriptions of programs that received grants, or “Community Investments”: Find link at