Where does the money go?
You hear a lot of talk about how we raise the annual United Way campaign. You hear a lot about the magnificent impact that the money makes throughout our community. What you may not be as familiar with is how those funding decisions are made each year. How do we decide where the money goes?
The process by which we determine how the campaign money is allocated is called our Community Investment Process. The key and most critical word in that sentence is COMMUNITY. The funding decisions are not determined by our Executive Director; they are not choices made solely or exclusively by our Board of Directors. The process involves members of our community, because after all this IS community money. One of the most unique things about United Way as a funder is that the money awarded in grant funding each year to local programs is not funding in escrow from large gifts or one time endowments. The money we award is raised in our community, by our community on an annual basis. Why does it always seem like we are in fundraising mode? Well, because we are! We raise the money, allocate the money, distribute the money and then do it all over again! It is a perpetual cycle.
So how do we involve community members in this cycle? We start with a Community Investment Committee — a group of board members and volunteers who come together to initiate the annual allocation process. We seek members from a wide array of backgrounds in order to diversify the viewpoints and areas of expertise at the table. These committee members participate in a training to ensure that they truly understand the mission of United Way and the focus areas that drive that mission. They become well versed in the funding process and help to determine the criteria that is most critical when evaluating applicants. Much of this work derives from a community needs assessment. (notice the ongoing theme of “community”) We participate in comprehensive and widespread community assessment plans in order to fully understand what the most critical needs are, rather than just operating from the vantage point of our own perceptions. This assessment tool allows us a measuring stick if you will to prioritize our funding areas and make decisions about where funds are most crucially needed. We look at four areas when evaluating needs and determining funding: education, health, income stability and safety net (basic, immediate human needs). All applicants must submit programming that falls into one of these categories.
The application period is an annual process for agencies making requests; the field is typically quite competitive. Our Untied Way team hosts a workshop each year inviting applicants for an opportunity to strengthen their proposals and ensure that they understand the process. At the workshop we provide assistance for those who might have technical questions to navigate the online application process. We provide more comprehensive support to those who have questions about logistics and strategies for the application. We recognize that agency leaders in the nonprofit sector are often great program managers and motivated agents for change…but not typically professional grant writers. We work to ensure that every interested applicant has the best opportunity to put forth their program in the best possible light. Once the application begin coming into our office the hard begins for us.
Each application is reviewed in two segments: financial review and program review. Community volunteers brig their personal expertise to these areas and carefully review and score each application. Site visits are conducted by a Citizen Reviewer. A Citizen Reviewer is a community volunteer is offers up 2-3 hours annually to attend visit program sites of an applicant and assess. The meet with program leadership, they see the operations at a boots on the ground level, and they provide systematic feedback to the scoring process. May Citizen Reviewers have been working with our process for several years. It is their way of giving back to the community and providing a most valuable service each year.
Once all of the reviews, visits and data collection are completed, our Community Investment Committee begins the interview process. Each applicant is invited to make a brief presentation to the committee and then is available to answer questions and address and concerns raised by the committee. Once each applicant has been interviewed, the committee begins their discussions and deliberations. The process is robust and thorough; it is also an agonizing task for those on the committee. No matter how successful the campaign, no matter the annual tally that we raise, there is never enough money to support all of the programs that we want to provide funding for. There is so much great work being done in our community (and it is all so very much needed). It is heartbreaking every year to know that we can’t say yes to every qualified program. It is reassuring however to know just how meticulous our vetting process is.
While we regret that some are turned away, we are confident in the choices we make and believe that our dollars fund some of the very strongest, most solvent, most impactful programs in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Last year’s process involved more than 150 community volunteers and encompassed a grand total of 1,300 clock hours. We recognize the great responsibility when we are investing community money and we are proud of our processes. Our next funding cycle will open in January and we are already seeking volunteers who will give a few hours of their time to ensure that the right choices are made for our community. Want to have a voice in the impact we are making? Let us know! We are looking for some heroes to join our work — there is a place on our team for YOU!