United Way seeking more bang for its bucks

By Maria Saporta
Friday, June 25, 2010

In a day of precious few philanthropic dollars, metro Atlanta’s social service advocates are seeking to have the greatest impact they can by rallying behind common goals.

Leading the charge is Metro Atlanta’s United Way, which distributes millions of dollars to hundreds of social service agencies around the region.

In the past year, United Way has been transforming the way it invests in the community by targeting its resources on six measurable initiatives: babies are born healthy; children enter schools ready to learn and graduate prepared for careers; young people avoid risky behaviors; families are self-sufficient; people have access to primary health care; and homeless people are housed within one year.

United Way also is trying a new approach in its giving. It is targeting several of metro Atlanta’s most distressed communities by creating comprehensive partnerships that tackle all aspects of poverty and need in that neighborhood.

“Overall, the United Way system has really embraced this notion of community impact,” said Milton Little, president of United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta Inc. “We have been engaging and building groups of stakeholders that have agreed to work on these goals together.”

Collaborative networks are being formed to address each of the six initiatives.

For the “Babies Born Healthy” initiative, a leadership council has been formed and the co-chairs have been named.

The chair is Jay Berkelhamer, a pediatrician who is past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is the senior physician adviser at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and is a professor at Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine.

The co-chair is Fleda Mask Jackson, senior scientist at the Atlanta Regional Health Forum and professor of applied public health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Health.

The council includes leaders of several nonprofits, government agencies and civic organizations, all working to develop specific strategies to reduce the number of low birth weight babies being born in metro Atlanta.

For the primary health-care access initiative, Ross Mason has been named the chair. Mason created HINRI (Healthcare Institute for Neuro-Recovery and Innovation) Ventures in 2007 after a bicycle accident left him paralyzed. Mason also is vice chairman of the Georgia Department of Community Health and chairman of the Georgia Free Clinic Network.

The Metro Atlanta Financial Stability Partnership is working on how to make families more self-sufficient.

That collaborative team is being chaired by Mark Washington, assistant commissioner at the Georgia Department of Human Resources who oversees both the Division of Family and Children Services and the Office of Child Support Services.

“Our collaborative network is helping families become more financially stable,” said Diane McCants, who is United Way’s director for the income initiative. “The network is really focused on looking at the region for gaps in services. We want a family, no matter where they live in the region, to have access to services.”

The Atlanta Prosperity Campaign is a key component of this initiative. For the past three years, the campaign, which receives a fourth of its funding from United Way, has been helping individuals and families fill out tax returns to make sure that they are receiving all the benefits available to working families — such as the Earned Income Tax Credits.

In 2010, the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign helped people file an estimated 12,300 federal tax returns, of which 2,863 included the Earned Income Tax Credits. That translated into $16.2 million in refunds that went to families with the greatest needs.

Bill Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, helped launch the Atlanta Prosperity Campaign three years ago. It has since become a model of how the public and private sectors can work together to change people’s lives.

“It’s impactful. It’s measurable. And it requires collaboration,” said Bolling, who has been working with United Way as it has changed from an organization focused on raising annual campaign dollars to one aimed at having the greatest community impact.

“Philosophically and theoretically, United Way’s strategic direction is good,” Bolling said. “I don’t think they had a choice. All of us have to be responsible to our donors and to the community. There are many things we could work on, but we have to work on areas where we can have the greatest impact.”

In many ways, the Regional Commission on Homelessness has been at the forefront of this new strategic direction for United Way. The commission has partnered with social service agencies and local county governments on developing ways to end chronic homelessness.

By getting organizations to work together and learn from each other, the greater the likelihood for success.

Little remembered when he went to Henry County last year to talk about reducing the high school dropout rate. It really hit home that the challenges in Henry are the same as those in Butts, Douglas and Cherokee counties.

That once again raised the question: “How do we bring the best minds regionally to make sure we are addressing the issues that we face?” Little said. “We are seeking regional solutions to local problems.”

For the first time ever, Atlanta’s United Way is also investing in “place-based” giving — targeting specific neighborhoods for an “all hands on deck” approach to helping transform those communities.

Little said that in metro Atlanta “where you live does determine how you live.” So if you live in the Pittsburgh community south of downtown, Little said chances are that you won’t have equal access to services or the same chance of success as if you lived in a more affluent community.

United Way is identifying several communities to begin its place-based work, including Norcross, Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit V (which includes Pittsburgh) and East Lake, which has been a model of this comprehensive approach.

“We are trying to bring all the resources together in these communities to solve the issues,” Little said. “We are trying to figure out how to close the education, income and health gaps in these communities.”

Bolling said creating partnerships is “harder” than working on one’s own. “There’s always a challenge when you’ve got collaborative partners,” Bolling said, adding that one challenge is making sure every one gets the appropriate credit. But given the limited dollars in the communities, social service groups have no choice but to join forces.

Oz Nelson, former CEO of United Parcel Service Inc. and past chairman of Atlanta’s United Way campaign who also has served on the national United Way board, has championed emphasizing strategic community impact rather than just raising money.

“United Way is doing a miraculously strong job in pushing this agenda around the country,” Nelson said, adding that it was Atlanta that pioneered strategic giving among United Ways more than a decade ago. “We don’t have as much money as we would like to have to address these issues. We have to bring more community resources together so we can focus on ways to be more effective.”

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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