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Patrick Springer, Published December 14 2013

United Way to tie funding to its own research

FARGO – United Way of Cass-Clay is in the midst of a major shift in its approach to strengthening four community “building blocks”: education, income stability, health and basic needs.

The new method, begun in 2011, will reach an important stage next May, when United Way uses social change measurements to guide its decisions in awarding grants.

That could mean some programs that have enjoyed longstanding support from United Way could lose funding, although the charitable umbrella organization has been working to try to avoid that, leaders told The Forum Editorial Board last week.

“If they’re not measuring, we would defund them,” said Sherri Thomsen, United Way of Cass-Clay’s president.

The group first would try to improve results, she said.

“We’re trying to give them plenty of notice,” Thomsen added. “The intention is not to cut anybody off at the knees.”

The shift means United Way is more directly involved in measuring problems and searching for solutions in collaboration with partners.

“In a nutshell, we really are concerned with bringing about social changes in our community,” Thomsen said.

Education, employment

Although the metro area ranks well nationally in high school graduation rates, education attainment gaps have proved to be a stubborn problem.

United Way and its partners have met with school officials and business representatives to try to design programs to ensure academic success from pre-kindergarten through college.

“This is our future workforce,” Thomsen said.

Disparities in education achievement, with disadvantaged children commonly lagging behind their peers, actually are greater in many areas elsewhere.

“We think the schools are doing a great job,” Thomsen said.

Yet, one in four students in the North Dakota University System requires remedial courses that do not apply to graduation credits. Addressing that problem at its earliest stages means, among other programs, collaborating with public health nurses who work with at-risk mothers so they make appropriate choices that place their children on the right path, Thomsen said.

At Jefferson Elementary School in Fargo, United Way has invested in a social worker whose focus is to keep kids in school. A third of students in the school are in and out of school during the year, an impediment to learning.

Residents in the Jefferson school neighborhood were surveyed to gauge their perceptions.

The Jefferson initiative has reduced absentee rates 75 percent, said Thomas Hill, a community impact director at United Way.

Because Fargo-Moorhead has a very low unemployment rate, many are startled to learn that one in eight residents lives in poverty.

“We are really a community of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ ” Thomsen said. “That’s growing, and we don’t really see that.”

Solving that problem involves many components, including affordable housing and day care, and finding solutions to underemployment.

The best solutions are those that go to root causes, Thomsen said.

“No one wants to build another emergency shelter,” she said. “Nobody wants to build another food pantry.”

Team approach

Under United Way’s new approach, information is shared with all partner organizations, a team approach to identifying and directing investment to solve problems.

“That’s a new way of working and investing in the community,” Thomsen said.

The new approach, with a greater emphasis on measuring programs’ results, is intended to give donors a better picture of their “return on investment,” said Mark Cullen, a community impact director for United Way.

“How do we prove that the dollars are making a difference?” he asked. Historically, nonprofits relied heavily on more subjective “gut” measures of success, Cullen said.

By conducting more of its own research, United Way is in a better position to tailor solutions to problems, sometimes drawing upon successes found elsewhere.

Also, it’s sometimes easier for United Way to be objective about assessing a program’s results than the organization delivering services, Thomsen said.

Funding contracts are for three years, with ongoing monitoring of results and “tweaks” along the way, he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522