Regional United Way challenges communities to help reduce economic and racial disparities

The changes that came about when the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo United Ways merged in 2012 were only the beginning. The organization and how it achieves it mission continues to evolve.

After a year of research and study, United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region has a crafted a set of goals and strategies for achieving them over the next ten to 15 years that are designed to create "a vibrant community where all people realize their full potential.” 

A group of more than 250 supporters and partners gathered at Sherman Lake YMCA Camp on May 5 to learn about what the United Way describes as a "regional strategy for meaningful change." 

Second Wave sat down with United Way officials in advance of the announcement to discuss what they perceive as the region's most pressing problems and how they hope to address them.

Education, economic stability, health, and a secure safety net emerged as the broad description of the goals, but very specific goals fall under each of those areas. 

Mike Larson, president and CEO of United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, says the United Way has always been a fundraising organization and will continue to seek donations to help its partners do their work. But now the United Way's work will be more focused.  And community members who cannot give financially will be asked to contribute in other ways."

"For us that (fundraising) has really transitioned to how do we use the dollars we raise more effectively so that they move the needle around issues for children, families, and individuals in the community," Larson says.

It's important to note, our world is changing, he adds. Though the United Way has what Larson describes as amazing corporate partnerships, other  companies that once were significant United Way contributors no longer exist or have significantly downsized. "That's not something United Way can control and it affects our ability to have the impact we want."

At the same time, the ways people look at philanthropy and how people give have gone through their own transitions. Technology now allows people more choices when it comes to donation and they can give of their time in different ways. How people look at philanthropy as a whole has changed, Larson says. For example, millennials want to be engaged in philanthropy because they are passionate about an issue."All of these start to help us shape how we do our work."

In this changing philanthropic landscape, the United Way set out to find out how it was doing. "We met with companies. We met with individual donors. We met with agencies. We met with community leaders. We actually went out and pulled together groups of people who are receiving services to get feedback to really understand what are we doing well and what do we need to do to have a greater impact."

Larson says people told the organization they are willing to give because: "We trust United Way."  And those they spoke with indicated United Way's focus on education, income, health and basic needs are important.

"But as we’ve spoken with supporters and partners over the past year, we kept hearing that United Way tends to be a mile wide and an inch deep," Larson says. "People are telling us to dive deeper, and that’s what we’ve committed to do."

Chris Sargent, UWBCKR executive vice president, and COO, says when the organizations merged in 2012 the idea emerged that United Way could be a catalyst for change. "When we came together, it gave us the opportunity to leverage the talent and resources that we had in the region. In some cases, we were doing really good things in one community that might not have been as strong in another community. And so it was about sharing best practices, bringing more people and resources together. Not just financial resources, but ideas and engagement, making a greater effort to act in those areas, as well as leveraging our investments."

Now, the organization is "really looking at how we can successfully support children and families in ways that recognize the interconnectedness of education, income health and basic needs," Sargent says. "We know that kids can't learn if they're hungry. We know that some families are going to struggle if we don't provide some basic supports, but also. we can work with them so they get the skills that they need to get jobs with a livable wage to help support their family and keep them more stable."

Matt Lynn, director, community impact for UWBCKR, says there's also a need to understand that the conditions that exist in a community drive the need for organizations to change and evolve. "The way we existed at one time it was as the economy goes, so the community goes, so goes your nonprofit sector. When you have a booming economy, you have communities that are doing well financially, creating more nonprofit organizations." As the economy falters so do the available resources. 

These days nonprofits are shifting from being charities to having a strong business model that  substantiates the relevance of their work and is at the same time responsive to changes, Lynn says. There is a need for a structure that allows alignment to take place around local issues.  

"That's where the United Way comes into play," Lynn says, "because we can be that objective organization that isn't necessarily on the ground level running the programs but we can help people understand the conditions the community is up against. 

"We can play a higher level role helping people understand these are the conditions we are up against, these are the policies and practices that we have to attune ourselves to better understand how do we all come together and actually get to that place where nonprofits is actually a relevant and credible as a sector."

"We try to lead by example," Larson says. "How we do our work to more effective and efficient that merger is a prime example of why we did it. How we partner with other organizations around issues is another example of why we do that."

The goals

• Improve high school graduation rates and reduce racial and economic disparities in graduation rates. The measure of success will be a four-year high school graduation rate of 83 percent region-wide by 2030, with a focus on graduation rates for students of color and students from low-income families. Strategic efforts will focus on early childhood success and kindergarten readiness, early grade reading proficiency, and the social emotional wellbeing of children.

"If we don't have a 100 percent of our kids reading proficiently by the end of third grade that's something that impacts all of us," says Sargent. "It affects us as a community if those kids are successful and graduate from high school on time, post career. It affects their ability to raise the next generation. That's the issue. It's a community issue. It's not just a United Way issue. It's not just a school district issue. It's not just a business issue. It's an issue for all of us."

The United Way can help make sure everybody in the community understanding that issue and can bring together those that can help address it.

It's already being done in Battle Creek, where an elementary school went from having less than 5 percent of its kindergarteners reaching reading proficiency to 70 percent after the United Way brought people together to work on the situation. That program is now being used in Kalamazoo are school districts.'

• Increase the number of economically stable households. As measured by ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) standards, UWBCKR seeks to elevate 8,500 households to economic stability by 2030. Strategies center on ensuring stable and affordable housing, and providing workforce and income supports—such as access to child care, transportation, and financial literacy—for low-income and working people.

Lynn explains that while 17 to 19 percent of local families are at the poverty line and qualify for federal assistance, nearly half of local households struggle to make ends meet financially. These ALICE households will be supported with programs that help stabilize their housing, which gives them an opportunity to grow their asset base as well as their income base. 

Further supports that will help the ALICE population are education that helps them get and retain employment, child care so they can work without worrying about their young ones, and transportation to their jobs.

• Improve family and infant health while reducing racial and economic disparities. As infant mortality rates are a key measure of a community’s overall health system, UWBCKR set a goal of reducing the infant mortality rate region-wide to 6.0 by 2025—that is, no more than six infant deaths in the first year of life per 1,000 live births. This is an especially urgent need among some minority groups that face worse infant mortality rates than seen in undeveloped countries. Efforts will focus on physical, behavioral and mental health for families and infants, and on health education and awareness.

"When we talk about as a community one of those indicators that are used in a variety of ways, infant mortality is one of those," Lynn says. "Even in the economic development side, businesses look at that statistic and derive whether that's a healthy community for families, that among other examples."

Focusing on infant mortality can have many benefits. "It gives us an opportunity to go deeper on a really critical issue. By zeroing in on reducing the number to six infant deaths in the first year of life per 1,000 live births we are affecting all those pregnancies that would potentially be at risk. 

"If we have a healthy system and structure in place to ensure that from the time a woman and a family find out that she is pregnant they are now on the path to get effective prenatal care to ensure that that birth is happy and that there is follow-up for a year to ensure that child is healthy. If you have that system in place, then it begins to correlate to what do we want to do beyond that. That is a real key indicator in terms of 

Ensure a safety net is in place to help individuals and families access basic necessities in times of crisis. Efforts in this area will include making sure people can get food, shelter, clothing, transportation, vital records and other basic needs.a community issue. Something we need to pay attention to."

"Resolving economic and racial disparities, is a core value in each of these goals," says Sargent. "We've always been focused on diversity and we've expanded on that over the years. These goals and this strategic direction build on that even further as we're learning as an organization individually and collectively around equity. We're being very focused and very intentional around the ways in which we help support the most vulnerable in our community. And looking at the disparity around economic and racial disparities we want all people, all children, all families to be successful."

Local nonprofits seeking United Way partnerships will be required to measure how their work is contributing to reaching the identified goals. When possible, the organization has spelled out how those are to be measured. Officials say the organization will assist its partners as they learn the new metrics.

Before the May 4 event, the United Way  goals and strategies had been rolled out over the past four months to 300 individuals across the region and the issues resonated, Larson says. In some cases, people are hearing for the first time about the community concerns. When they learn about the strategies and how the work will be measured they are receptive. 

"People want to invest or give to programs that will have an impact," Larson says. "When we are out with our corporate sponsors, in many cases we hear them saying, "Well this is how we operate. So we're real excited to see you thinking this way.'"

He also acknowledges that some people will have difficulty accepting the strategies because they are new. "This is change," Larson says. "Anytime you make significant change like we are doing here--that's disruptive. And people want to understand--what does this mean to me? What does this mean to my organization? How do I fit into this? By going deeper into this work it means we will have lots of the same partners, but there also will be different partners."

Already many organizations that previously had not applied to be United Way partners have come forward. "We have a lot of organizations different organizations that are saying they would love to partner with United Way, which is exciting, says Larson.

Now the question is the communities will choose to become engaged. 

"This is an open invitation to get involved in this change," says the United Way's Chris Riker. "You are invited to be part of the solving the challenges that face our community."

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos courtesy of United Way

Mike Larson presents the United Way's new goals and strategies to supporters. 

More than 250 people attended the United Way Come Together event.

Mike Larson, Chris Sargent and Matt Lynn.

Participants in the peace circles activities at Kalamazoo Public Schools.
Ma'ier participates in the STREET After-School Program in Kalamazoo. With support from United Way, STREET keeps at-risk teen engaged in positive activities and academic success, and away from destructive behaviors. This effort supports social and emotional wellbeing within United Way's education focus, one of four focus areas.
Despite challenges, Aracely (seen here with her mother, Fanny) was able to get the structured, focused learning opportunities she needed through the Learning Village and KC Ready 4s, preparing her to succeed in school. United Way, a partner in these programs, is working with community organizations to achieve community-level goals in education as well as income, health and basic needs.
United Way partners with Gryphon Place to provide "peace circles" and Balance and Restorative Justice methods through volunteers at Maple, Hillside and Loy Norrix in Kalamazoo. This effort aligns with the social and emotional wellbeing strategy within United Way's education focus, one of four focus areas.
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