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What Does United Way Do?

One of the consistent challenges that we have as an organization is when posed the question, “what does United Way do?”


It’s a simple question that at times has no easy answers.  For some, we are a fundraiser, a convener, a collaborator.  To others, we are considered a middleman, overhead, or outdated.


As the saying goes (sort of), beauty (or value) is in the eye of the beholder.


Historically, our beauty/value has been measured by how much money we raise.  The Pantagraph coverage frequently points out how that’s declined in recent years, hinting that our beauty/value has diminished.  Fair or unfair, this is how many view us, and they point to our recent trends in support of their argument that we’re an outdated middleman.


But many of you, while viewing us as primarily a fundraiser, have a different perspective.  You recognize that money raised by United Way saves time and money, particularly for our partner agencies.  It’s like the small business that outsources HR or IT in an effort to focus on core competencies, those things that you and your organization does best.  To our partner agencies, we’re a valuable vendor.


In a conversation with an area superintendent recently, he thanked us for providing data and information that they were previously unaware of.  They get no money from us, but they frequently take the time to attend meetings and share the information we provide there.  To him, we’re a conduit of community data that informs his work.


Last summer, I took my then 8 year-old daughter, Addison, to Disney World.  We had a wonderful time, and while there, I overheard a gentleman talking about Steak N Shake.  He noticed my smile and asked if I had eaten there.  I told him I had, and I learned, ironically enough, that he lives and works in the Bloomington-Normal area.  When he learned what I did, he asked about setting up a teambuilding volunteer outing for his small office.  Six weeks later, Burl and his team spent a morning working with a local non-profit here in McLean County.  To him, we served as a connector to community-building.


Is any one of these more valuable than the other?  Again, that depends on the eye of the beholder.  In each of these examples, we provide something that’s valuable in the moment.


When I decided to apply for this job, I believed in what United Way does, and now, as we face some of the most critical challenges in decades, I still believe in what United Way does.  As I’ve thought about the question “What does United Way do?”, I think I’ve boiled it down to the following:


United Way builds stronger communities.


The methods vary, and the value/beauty will depend on your point of view.  In each of the examples above, United Way contributed something meaningful that builds a stronger community, whether it be through money, data, or connections, we make it personal, local, and accessible, and we convene and coordinate resources.


I’m curious to hear from all of you….what does United Way do?  Send us your thoughts, and let’s start a dialogue!