How Big Changes at United Way Led to an Outsized Community Impact During the COVID-19 Crisis | United Way of Metropolitan Dallas


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This article was originally published in Forbes.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept into Dallas, my organization – United Way of Metropolitan Dallas (UWMD) – swept out traditional ways of doing business and led through innovation to meet community needs. Anticipating the critical impact on the region, we quickly assessed community needs, set up a response and recovery fund, and activated fundraising efforts. In what typically took months of fundraising, United Way raised over $12 million in just eight weeks from generous donors to support the community’s needs.

We knew the existing model of grant-making and its extensive application process needed to quickly become more efficient and effective. We recognized not only the immediate need in the community for help with issues tied to the pandemic, but also the need to quickly get the financial support to nonprofits providing critical services – including food, healthcare, lost wages, housing costs and support for vulnerable populations.

In response, we led a collaboration of more than 30 funders with a goal of lowering application obstacles for nonprofits and streamlining review and decision-making for grant-makers. With our team finely tuned to collaboration whether in the office or working from home, we found creative solutions to technology challenges and launched the application online within days. This type of process – a single application portal for more than 30 funders without pooled funds – had never been developed before, but we moved from idea to execution in just one week.

I know that we’re not the only community that faced an urgent need to act quickly, and this crisis won’t be the last time that communities are challenged to break through bureaucracies to meet such broad-based community needs. Based on my experience and what I’ve learned during this process, here are key learnings and best practices that can create greater impact for your nonprofit and community.

Extend your reach through collaboration. The adage, “It takes a village,” retains its wisdom when approaching a once-in-a-generation crisis. While United Way enjoys a highly visible position in the market, we knew there were other organizations with a similarly long reach, but with different service priorities. So rather than compete for funds, we collaborated with prominent local foundations and organizations to coordinate our fundraising and giving. Members were able to see which organizations were funded and where additional investments were needed to address the most critical needs.

Set boundaries. It may sound counter-intuitive, but boundaries are the key to making collaboration work. In Dallas, the United Way’s service priorities are health, education and income, so we collaborated with organizations that had non-competing service priorities. With our collaborative approach, all funding requests came first to the United Way. We evaluated which programs have the best outcomes and most efficient and effective service delivery. If the request fell outside our service priorities of health, education and income, we shared the applications with all North Texas Cares members so they could make funding decisions based on their priorities and guidelines.

Push the limits of technology. While we set boundaries with our collaborating organizations, we pushed the boundaries of technology to build the engine that powered the North Texas Cares program. The program required a tool that had never before been developed. Adding to the complexity was the working environment: our entire team was working from home, so the technology development, testing and implementation occurred remotely. Our team pulled together to push the limits of technology where none of the participating organizations had ever gone before.

Look beyond the obvious for new partners. Smaller, but highly effective, organizations have tended to operate under the radar of most funders. But to reach already disenfranchised and marginalized populations, these organizations often are the most trusted and have the systems in place to meet highly localized needs. By removing barriers to a traditionally complicated application process, we made it easier for nonprofits to apply for funds when previously they would not have applied, getting resources into the community quickly – this is the key priority and will continue to be so.

Measure impact, not just dollars. In the nonprofit world, success is often measured in dollars raised and dollars disbursed. In our collaborative model, we’re measuring success in the millions of residents whom we’re helping through hundreds of organizations, in addition to the millions of dollars raised. In just two months, we’ve already seen a much bigger impact through collaboration than if we were working separately. United Way’s $3.6 million seed investments in 296 organizations served as a catalyst for other members, resulting in a collective investment of almost $28 million in 420 nonprofits, and a positive impact on the lives of millions of North Texas residents.

This moment in history presented an opportunity for nonprofits to lead through innovation. While the coronavirus upended life as usual, in its wake, it left a new template for business as usual for the nonprofit and philanthropic sector.

Jennifer Sampson is president & CEO of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and Chapter Chair YPO Dallas.

This article was published on: Jun 17, 2020