‘Big thinker’ Patrick Moran works to cultivate ‘beautiful community’ for all

Patrick Moran arrived on the West Michigan Lakeshore in 1995, both to take up a paid position as youth director for the Grand Haven YMCA and to devote his spare time to be a tireless advocate and evangelist for soccer, the “beautiful game” he learned and loved as a youngster growing up near Nottingham, in the heart of England.

Today, 25 years later, he believes the sport has “genuinely arrived” in West Michigan. So now he’s focusing all his energy and experience on another goal: cultivating a “truly beautiful community” for all the region’s residents through his work as regional president of the United Way for Ottawa and Allegan counties.

Patrick Moran is the regional president of the United Way for Ottawa and Allegan counties. Photo by Matthew J. HuizengaMoran, who’s been in that leadership role at United Way since 2006, has played a critical role in helping promote new avenues of collaboration between government and nonprofit organizations in Ottawa and Allegan counties, as well as insisting on data-driven studies and solutions to some of the region’s most pressing challenges.

“When I was working at the ‘Y’ in Grand Haven, I thought I would be a lifer because the place changes kids’ lives,” Moran recalls. “But you also eventually see that there’s a lot more happening to our kids than anyone can fix with a ‘Y’ membership or class.”

‘Involved in the bigger picture’

“Providentially,” he continues, “at just about that time, I volunteered to serve on a committee for community impact for the United Way, and that set in motion my eventual move to join the United Way and become involved in the bigger picture for our community.”

That transition has put Moran at the table for an array of initiatives and organizations that aim to provide economic and educational opportunities and affordable housing and health care for all those who live in or near Ottawa and Allegan counties.

He’s currently serving — or has recently participated — on a number of community boards and task forces, including North Ottawa County Council on Aging, the Allegan County Economic Development Commission, Community SPOKE, Great Start Collaborative, the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce, Lakeshore Nonprofit Alliance, Housing Next, and the Michigan ALICE Project, where he’s become the state chair.

Patrick Moran talks with Amanda Telgenhof, Allegan United Way Area Director, in his office. Photo by Matthew J. Huizenga“Patrick has been a key force figuring out the intersection of nonprofits and government,” says Keith Van Beek, Holland’s city manager and the board chair for Greater Ottawa County United Way. “He’s always pushing to make sure that health and human services extended to Ottawa and Allegan counties are done in the most effective and efficient way. And he’s working on getting good data so we know what’s really happening in our communities.”

Converting data to real stories 

Van Beek, a former deputy administrator for Ottawa County, praises Moran as “a big thinker, a systems thinker, very strategic and collaborative,” and points to his work with the ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) project as particularly impressive.

“Patrick has put Ottawa County at the forefront of understanding ALICE, and he’s going around the nation talking about how it’s changing the way we see and do things in Ottawa County,” Van Beek continues. “He’s converting the data to real stories and real conversation. These are the people who serve us our dinner when we go out to eat. This is the daycare provider we use. This is us — our sons, our daughters, single mothers, the working poor all around us.”

Moran describes ALICE as “a complex term for a population we know all too well. ALICE is the person who works hard to make a living but still can’t seem to make ends meet. ALICE has an income above the Federal Poverty Level but struggles to afford basic household necessities. ALICE is a mother struggling to raise her children while also caring for an aging parent; a college student attending classes by day and waiting tables by night; a senior citizen choosing between prescription medications and groceries.” 

The ALICE population

By current measures, ALICE families represent 31% of Ottawa County households and 36% of Allegan County households. ALICE families make up 37% of Kent County’s households and 45% of Muskegon County’s households, with a statewide tally of 41% ALICE families.

“ALICE families receive the least amount of support but need it the most,” Moran says. “I’ve had many people say that they would rather be in poverty because it would mean certain things would be guaranteed to them, while virtually nothing is guaranteed for the ALICE population. That’s not the kind of community we want to create.”

Moran acknowledges that Ottawa County, in particular, has been a shooting star in the constellation of Michigan counties and that the working-poor population is often hidden from view.

Patrick Moran in his office in Holland. Photo by Matthew J. Huizenga

“We have some awesome things going on here,” he says, “and we have some not-so-awesome things. Wages are growing but not as fast as housing and health care and child care costs.

So, for many people, without support from the community or government or somewhere, they are not going to be able to live and work here.”

Looking at system, not symptom

Moran notes that the emergence of the Housing Next group is working to alter “the ecosystem of how housing is built and priced for the workforce we need in our communities,” since many hourly workers cannot afford to live in Grand Haven or Holland and commute to their workplaces from less-costly neighboring counties.

“At United Way, we are the conveners to get all the players to look at the system, not just the symptom,” Moran says. “What can we change that is sustainable and not just a Band-Aid? I see hope for the future because everyone is pulling in the same direction. This community will rally around a genuine cause, and the ALICE project is actually a catalyst for creating a community where everyone can have a decent life, whatever their income level.”

Louann Werksma, who has worked with Moran at United Way for about a dozen years, says he is always willing to try new things and “never looks backward,” no matter whether a project soars or sinks. 

“His philosophy is that everyone will do better by fostering their native strengths rather than focusing on fixing their weaknesses,” she adds. “He’s so good at that. He goes out of his way to make sure that people get what they need to be successful and shine.”

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Bruce Buursma.