Column: Atlanta’s United Way makes grants process competitive

By Maria Saporta
Friday, April 8, 2011

The United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc. is changing the way it awards grants to its member charities — a move that is being welcomed by many while causing concern for others.

United Way, which gives grants to about 200 social service agencies, has been retooling itself from being an organization that is only a pass-through of money for charities to being one that strategically sets goals for maximum community impact in the areas of education, income, health and homelessness.

“We’re changing from an entitlement environment to a competitive grant environment so that the grants you receive are based on outcomes rather than what you received last year,” said Milton Little, president of Atlanta’s United Way. “That’ll be a pretty significant change.”

United Way, which runs annual workplace campaigns, raised more than $80.2 million in 2010. In July, the organization will be announcing how much money it will be giving the various agencies based on its new strategic allocation policy.

“This is the tough year,” Little acknowledged. ”For the first time this spring, an agency doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of what they can expect. For me, this is all still a work in progress.”

That said, United Way is trying to create incentives for greater collaboration among agencies with common goals. It also is hoping to be able to attract more foundation dollars if donors realize that its strategic initiatives are paying results.

“We want to see evidence that you have moved the needle,” Little said. “We want to become more strategic in our giving to drive our overall goals where families in Atlanta can thrive. We want to create a more potent value proposition for all our donors. We have to be a much more successful and focused charitable organization.”

In many ways, the Regional Commission on Homelessness has served as the model for this strategy. It brought together the various agencies tackling homelessness to coordinate their community-wide efforts.

“Unless we are attacking these issues together, it’s probably unlikely we will make a big impact,” said Larry Keys, United Way’s board chair and worldwide partner and Atlanta office head for the Mercer human resources firm.

Stephen Woods, executive director of Open Hand, which delivers meals to those in need, embraced what United Way is trying to do.

“We are trying to figure out how to put ourselves out of business,” said Woods, who added that his organization only receives about 1 percent of its budget from United Way. “It’s the only way to go. We certainly want to have the biggest impact we can have on the community.”

Subie Green, president of the Center for the Visually Impaired, also endorses the strategy in theory, but she is concerned about how it may be implemented. Her organization has seen its United Way funding go from $583,995 in 2006 to $405,561 this year (nearly 12 percent of its budget). At the same time, it has seen state funding drop from $170,000 to $40,000.

“It’s been very hard,” said Green, who runs a very well-respected organization with measurable results. “Every year is such a struggle.” Green said that what bothers her the most is that people with disabilities are almost “invisible” these days, especially when considering their dire needs.

“It’s hard to find a spot for us in the focus areas,” she said, adding that United Way’s new strategy “could be devastating for certain organizations.”

United Way leaders, however, have pledged to be flexible and understanding.

“The last thing we want to do is alienate anybody out there trying to do good work,” Keys said. “In a couple of years, I think we all will be glad we did this. The proof of the pudding will be if we are a making a difference in the community.”

2011 festival’s no dog

Thanks to a few last-minute sponsorships, the 75th annual Atlanta Dogwood Festival will come close to matching last year’s level, according to the festival’s executive director, Brian Hill.

The festival will be April 15-17 at Piedmont Park. Its strongest corporate partner has always been The Coca-Cola Co., which currently has a five-year deal with the festival. Other major sponsors include Crown Imports/Corona; ZonePerfect/Abbott Laboratories and the Georgia Lottery. Georgia Best Chevy Dealers also is a major sponsor.

But Hill said the festival’s challenge is that costs continue to increase. As a result, it has had to include more ticketed events to subsidize the mostly free event.

Just a happy coincidence

Georgia Chamber of Commerce President Chris Clark swears it is not a conspiracy.

This year, the 2011 Red Carpet Tour is showcasing Gainesville to 23 business prospects who also are attending the Masters golf tournament in Augusta.

Gainesville just happens to be the hometown of Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia Chamber Chairman Doug Carter. “Gainesville was pre-determined before the election,” Clark said.

Medical advocates honored

Morehouse School of Medicine recognized three health-care advocates on April 6 at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta for its annual Gloster Society awards.

The award winners were Donna Hyland, president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; Dr. M. Delmar Edwards, a posthumous award for his impact in helping aspiring African-American physicians in Georgia; and Judge Douglas C. Pullen of the Superior Court Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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