UW Sunday Column 5-18-14: Understanding your community fund

John KelkerAs originally published on May 18, 2014 in the State Journal-Register

Each year, United Way of Central Illinois conducts its annual campaign, raising millions of dollars to support local nonprofit programs.

Funds raised during the campaign consist of two dollar amounts:

  • Donations, which are directed by an individual to the charity of his or her choice — United Way runs an open campaign allowing designations to any IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
  • Donations to United Way’s Community Fund.

The community fund provides the most effective way to support local programs working collaboratively to improve our community. Thanks to the generosity of nine local companies that underwrite our administrative expenses, each and every dollar given to the community fund goes directly to local programs.

Later this month, we will announce the programs to receive community funds during the next year, and we felt it was important to share how these allocations are determined.

The community fund consists of two funding areas: Essential Service programs, which address the basic needs of food, shelter, health care and victim services; and Lifelong Learning initiatives, which provide educational supports designed to build a more hopeful future for our children. Programs within each funding area receive support for a two-year period, allowing stability in agency revenue and time to measure program outcomes.

In 2013, volunteers assessed programs that provide essential services. Programs such as St. John’s Breadline and Contact Ministries’ Women and Children’s Shelter applied and received vital funding. Next year, essential service programs will once again be eligible to apply for funding.

This year, like in 2012, education programs aligned with the Lifelong Learning Initiative are eligible to apply for community funds. Many programs applying this year have received funding in the past. Volunteers also will evaluate requests from programs that have not previously received community funds or are new to our community.

How the process works

We’re often asked why United Way provides funding for two years at a time. The answer is simple: We’ve been entrusted with your investment for the purpose of efficiently and responsibly meeting community needs.

Over time, our communities’ needs, a program’s focus or financial position may change, and we have a responsibility to ensure your donation is used properly, services are delivered efficiently and programs provide measurable outcomes. In order to meet community needs and create meaningful change, United Way has an obligation to fund the programs that best deliver services and supports.

Once funding requests are received, the process of program evaluation and determining allocations begins. This process is organized by United Way but is completed by a panel of volunteers. In other words, members of our community evaluate programs, weigh community needs, measure potential outcomes and determine how funds are allocated.

Community fund volunteers consist of past panel members and individuals referred through community partners. Volunteers complete an application to serve, adhere to a strict code of ethics, disclose potential conflicts of interest and commit to the lengthy process of evaluating programs.

Volunteer panels are put together to reflect the diverse interests and demographics of our community. As a result, panel members come from a variety of backgrounds: from a retired university chancellor, to a parent educator, to a mother who once relied upon the programs funded by United Way.

After hours of training and at-home review of each program, volunteers meet to assign preliminary scores, discuss the programs and develop follow-up questions for each program. Among the information reviewed is the application, financial information, programmatic budgets, community needs being addressed and potential outcomes. The volunteers then forward any questions and/or requests to the applying agency.

Next, each agency is provided the opportunity to present before the volunteer panel and address any questions. This personal presentation is unique to our process, whereas, agencies seldom, if ever, have the opportunity to personally present to a funding panel when applying for other federal, state or private grants.

Following agency presentations, volunteers come together to assign final scores, rank the programs and prepare for the final allocations meeting. During the final meeting, volunteers review the final scoring of programs and allocate funds based upon the amount available and where it can do the greatest good.

Because of the collaborative nature of United Way, community fund volunteers provide each program the opportunity to meet in order to provide the agency with valuable feedback into the funding decision.

Upon completion of the volunteers’ recommendation, United Way’s board of directors reviews the recommendation and approves final allocations.

When many people think of United Way, they naturally think of our annual campaign, but beyond the campaign are the countless hours spent by volunteers charged with assuring your investment in our community is creating meaningful change.

John Kelker is the president of United Way of Central Illinois. For more information on United Way’s Community Fund, visit www.springfieldunitedway.org. Look for United Way columns weekly in Our Towns.