By Judy Stringer
Published in Crain's Cleveland Business
The United Way of Summit County has a problem.
No, it's not fundraising. Well, not exactly.
Following a record-breaking campaign in 2014, which raised more than $12.7 million, the Akron-based agency set out to collect $13.5 million from donors last year. Whether it did or not president and CEO Jim Mullen will not say.
And, he added, don't expect him or his team to wheel out the giant thermometer this year or next.
The emphasis on how much it can raise — rather than where that money goes — is part of the problem. For many years, the United Way of Summit County touted itself as place for community members to put their monetary donations, even promoting what is known as "designated donations," or funds earmarked for specific nonprofits.
"It was a philosophy we executed really well," Mullen said. "Past staff and past volunteer leadership really felt that the most important thing was driving that top-line revenues number. One way to do that was to talk to people about their philanthropic goals related to the community and then have United Way be the 'broker,' so to speak."
Between 2009 and 2015, designated donations nearly doubled, which on the surface sounds great, but those donations aren't always assigned to agencies driving change in Greater Akron. In fact, Mullen said 60% of designated donations passing through the United Way of Summit County in 2105 were made to nonprofits outside of its mission areas of education, income and health, and half left Summit County.
More troubling, as a larger piece of the pie went to designations, the United Way was left with less and less to dole out as grants to nonprofit partners working in mission areas of concern locally. Six years ago, United Way of Summit County had between $8 million and $9 million to allocate to community organizations "in line with our vision and goals and focus areas," Mullen said.
Last year, it had just over $3 million to give to those groups.
"Over six or seven years, we lost a huge chunk of the dollars that were under our discretion to make investments in the community that are aimed at our goals, at our mission," Mullen said. And, he noted, when it comes to "the community impact — the community change related to our core values — we are seeing little or no improvement in those conditions in Summit County."
Grim conditions to be sure. Better than half — 52% — of Akron children live in poverty, and 39% of Summit County children are obese or overweight. More than a quarter of Akron Public Schools third-graders don't read at grade level, and 26% of high schoolers do not graduate in four years.
"It's our conviction and our board's conviction that we need to really start to systematically approach those [conditions] and make lasting change here in Summit County," Mullen said.
A big part of the solution, they believe, is changing how the community — donors and grantees alike — thinks about and uses the United Way. The agency no longer wants to simply support others who are driving change. It wants to get behind the wheel.
That means no more broad "request for proposals" (aka RFPs) to fund any local organization or program that falls under its focus areas. Instead, Mullen said, the board will put out three to six "high-level" goals this spring — for example, to increase at-grade-level reading among Akron Public Schools third-graders from 73% today to 90% in 2020 — and organizations that want a slice of Summit County United Way's allocations in 2017 will need to align with very specific benchmarks toward one or more of those goals.
Plus, the agency will require future funding proposals to include an element of corporate or donor engagement.
"We really feel like that is going to drive the resource to make the change," Mullen said. "Once people are a part of it, and they touch and feel and participate, they are going to be more likely to give and invest their dollars in the work we are doing to achieve those goals."
The Summit County chapter is not the first United Way division to undergo this sort of reinvention. During the past decade, agencies all over the country, including the United Way of Greater Cleveland and the United Way of Greater Lorain County, have instituted new processes and strategies aimed at establishing their local agency's reputation as a problem solver rather than a funding source — an approach backed by the United Way Worldwide.
Nor did the Summit County leadership and board only recently decide to jump on the bandwagon, according to Rick Noechel, a senior vice president at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and a member of the Executive Committee of Summit County's United Way board. Realignment has been on their minds for at least five years. Hiring Mullen from the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville in March 2015 was one way to get that started, Noechel said, as Nashville was a pioneer in making the transformation.
Mullen said not being an early adopter gives the local leadership and board the advantage of seeing what has worked elsewhere and tailoring that to regional needs. The Akron agency, for example, has placed a lot of emphasis on community engagement.
In one recent case, Mullen and his team set up a backpack-stuffing station at the Goodyear headquarters so employees could drop in and fill a bag with school supplies they were already donating to Akron students. For years, the company has encouraged employees to purchase supplies as part of the United Way's "Stuff the Bus" campaign, and many did. This year marked the first time those employees also helped fill — what turned out to be 750 — backpacks.
During another project in June, the Summit County contingent rolled up their sleeves to construct a new playground at Suddieth Park in Akron's North Hill neighborhood with the help of volunteers and donations from Foresters Financial and the city of Akron. The $30,000 project included resurfacing a basketball court, adding picnic tables and installing new playground equipment.
"We are putting a stake in the ground that United Way is no longer interested in just writing checks," Mullen said. "We want to be a part of the engagement."
Whether the United Way's souped-up engagement model will ultimately result in more unrestricted gifts remains to be seen. That has not yet been the case in Lorain County, which began its transformation about five years ago. At the time, 18% of the donations funneling into the United Way there were designated to a particular nonprofit, and that number has not budged, according to executive director Bill Harper.
Still, Harper sees plenty of positive effects. Through its impact-focused collaborations with corporate partners and nonprofits, the Lorain County United Way has been able to leverage 50 cents of outside funding for every dollar of fundraising, and the number of organizations working with the agency has quadrupled from 30 in 2011 to 129 today.
"The fact that we've been able to engage that many people, that is certainly important," he said.
And while the engagement approach may resonate with some donors, Cynthia Ries thinks many will still want to direct their gifts.
"Some people really do know specifically where they want their money to go to," said Ries, who is executive director of Greater Cleveland Community Shares, a federation of social justice nonpofits, which like the United Way allows donors to designate gifts to charitable organizations outside of its mission area. "We want to help them make choices rather than make the choices for them."
Mullen said the new strategy is not meant to discourage donor choice.
"If they are passionate about a cause, we want them to make that choice to support that organization. We are not changing that," he said. … "But if we don't give the donors a reason to choose United Way, that is every reason why they would choose to designate another organization."