By DAN SHINGLER
United Way of Summit County will no longer be satisfied to collect money from area residents and businesses for the sake of a feel-good thermometer that measures good intentions in small bits of generosity.
Going forward, as United Way president Jim Mullen marks two years on the job in May, the organization says it will only accept positive results as a measure of its success. And it plans to measure its results in specific areas upon which Mullen says United Way will have a "laserlike focus."
"We can't keep triaging really big communitywide problems and issues. If we take a shotgun approach to everything we do, we're really thin, too thin. … And then your value really diminishes on the impact side," he said.
Mullen recently gave a preview of what he was preparing to unveil at the organization's annual meeting today, Tuesday, April 25. He said he's bringing to Summit County some of the same strategies he employed in Nashville, Tenn., where he ran the local United Way organization's corporate giving program for four years and increased its fundraising to record levels by focusing on outreach and results first and foremost.
"Honestly, I think that's why they hired me," Mullen said, noting that about 20 local officials from city and county government, corporations and economic development agencies recently visited Nashville to see how United Way has performed there.
One of the biggest changes that Mullen says he's instituting at United Way now is a focus on specific key areas, with measurable targets for improvement between now and the year 2025.
"We are putting a stake in the ground on four critical areas of focus," Mullen said.
The first two goals deal with youth in Summit County, and, more specifically, with students of Akron Public Schools.
Goal No. 1 will be to increase the percentage of third-graders who have reading skills appropriate for their grade level. United Way wants to see at least 65% of Akron third-graders reading at their grade level by 2025. That might sound like a low mark if seen from the vantage of some suburban schools, where nearly all students read at the level that they should, but it would be a huge improvement in a challenged urban school system like Akron.
"Right now, 38% of kids (in Akron schools) are reading at grade level in the third grade … and third grade is really the tipping point for academic success," Mullen said.
United Way chose 65% as its initial goal because that's roughly the county average in terms of students who read up to speed by third grade. But if United Way is successful, the county's average will improve considerably, and United Way will then have a new, higher number to shoot for in terms of success in Akron schools, Mullen said.
Goal No. 2 also is aimed at Akron schools students: United Way is setting its sights on having 90% of high school students get their diplomas in four years, and for 60% of all Akron students to leave the system prepared for either college or a career. Currently, only about 75% of the district's students graduate on time, and a dismal 21% are prepared for life after high school when they finish school.
That's not acceptable, and it's not sustainable for the city, Mullen said.
"Four out of five (Akron schools students) can't do anything that will be sustainable for them in terms of a pathway to life as a an adult after high school … So it's really a pathway to failure," Mullen said.
The third goal Mullen unveiled is aimed at some students who won't be helped by the Akron Public Schools initiatives, including Akron residents who have long since left the system. United Way will seek to financially empower 11,000 people by 2025, meaning they will gain "the skills, knowledge and resources to budget and save, manage debt, build credit and access banking services," according to United Way.
Finally, United Way is biting off a huge challenge for its fourth goal, but it's one Mullen says the agency simply cannot ignore. The agency will seek to reduce the opioid overdose rate in the county and to decrease emergency room visits for overdoses from the current number of about 2,400 a year to fewer than 1,000.
That's a challenge the agency likely would not have taken on a year ago, but since then, Mullen said, he thinks United Way has made progress in connecting itself to more community leaders, so it's in a better position to help. And, as the opioid crisis has only gotten worse, United Way organization simply could not ignore and it became a priority for the board, he said.
"Look at the data. How can United Way stand on the sidelines of something that is so critically important to our community right now?" Mullen asked, noting that Akron is the worst city in Ohio for the rate of opioid overdoses and Ohio is one of the worst states in the nation in terms of the epidemic's impact.
Mullen said his agency's new focus means it will narrow the types of projects and entities that it funds. While its four goals can include some fairly broad-based efforts – improving health might improve student success, for example – Mullen said every request for funds will now have to show how the funding will advance one of United Way's four goals.
"It literally has to fall under a specific goal, and then fit into a particular strategy, and then a specific tactic that they (the applicant) are going to take … It has to be laser-focused," Mullen said.
United Way will also focus more on direct engagement, which means asking people to volunteer their time and expertise in addition to or instead of monetary contributions. That's something Mullen began two years ago, and last year more than 1,400 volunteers contributed more than 10,000 hours of service, he said.
"This year, that should increase significantly," he said.
The new focuses are related to changes in the way that United Way is perceived and the ways in which people now interact with it. Mullen said that with the advent of the social media and direct giving via the internet, people do not need United Way to serve as a "pass-through channel" for their giving the way they did in past decades.
But he has found that by focusing on goals and getting people directly and personally involved, United Way can be seen as more relevant, accomplish more and still increase its fundraising, because engaged community members tend to be more supportive than those who simply give a small amount of money from each paycheck.